I’m pretty good at communication. In fact writing, talking, listening, empathy…that’s my thing. It’s a strength I take pride in and a gift I love to give back to others. I’ve cruised along for decades believing “I got this” in the area of close relationships and helping people through life’s challenges.
In fact I am so sure of my ability in this area that a few months ago I began the long academic journey towards becoming a therapeutic counsellor—the perfect accompaniment to my work in writing for personal growth.
But my studies are opening my eyes in so many ways, and it turns out I’m not as great at communication as I once thought.
It’s a humbling experience.
I recently delved deep into the topic of conflict resolution, one I definitely needed some help with given my tendency to run and hide at the first sign of a frayed encounter. I learned that my ability to communicate well, and on a profound level, was only really a strength when Conflict was off testing the patience of someone else. On the days when it picked me for its victim, however, all ability to communicate went out the window and I turned into someone I didn’t recognize.
Think Sissy Spacek in the movie Carrie.
You get the picture.
Defend and Attack
Do you recognize this scenario? You’re in a fight with your partner, family member, friend and you resort to “you” language. Often it looks something like this:
“You only think about yourself—you’re so selfish.”
“You never clean the house.”
“You don’t make time for me.”
“You never listen. You make me feel invisible.”
“You’re always spending money on stuff we don’t need.”
“You never call. It’s always me who has to make the effort.”
“You’re always telling me what to do.”
We could fill in the blanks with any number of scenarios, but the common denominator amongst them all is the use of the word “you.” As you read through the above statements can you imagine a finger pointing at you? An angry face up close? A feeling of guilt and a need to defend as your embittered opponent tries to take you down for the count?
This is how we learn to communicate from a young age: we make decisions about what is right and what is wrong (usually learned from our parents and peers), and form expectations and rules around those beliefs, regardless of whether others agree.
Then we take our stance and tell other people what they’re doing wrong and what they need to change. We judge, label (selfish, lazy, inconsiderate, stupid….the list goes on) and attack, and most of the time we feel justified in doing so because we think we have been wronged and our beliefs are right.
The problem is we judge and blame according to our own perceptions and standards. What seems selfish to one person may be perfectly acceptable to the next. What seems inconsiderate to you (jumping the line-up for example) may be the norm for someone from a different culture. And words said one way can be received in a completely different way by the person you’re talking to.
Yup, communication is far more complex than it seems.
The art of listening
When someone feels heard and understood there is no need or desire for a battle. (tweet that!)
Often when communication is going downhill it is because we have tuned into our own emotions (hurt, anger, sadness, fear) and have stopped listening. We feel the need to defend our emotions, values and beliefs at all costs and the attack begins. This happens both on a small scale within intimate relationships, and on a global scale between world leaders and cultures.
The way around such battles is so simple, and yet so challenging to implement in the moment. It involves stepping off the battleground for just a few moments and being willing to listen. Really listen.
Listening doesn’t just mean allowing the other person to speak; it means stepping into their shoes and really hearing what they have to say. It means making an effort to understand their perspective and empathizing with their situation.
If listening seems impossible in the heat of the moment when feelings of hurt and anger are acting as a barrier, it may be necessary to pause the conversation and come back to it later.
The biggest thing to remember about listening is that when someone feels heard and understood there is no need or desire for a battle.
It’s all about the need
Every time we communicate with another person we have a need. That need may be a simple as a need for organization, which could be accompanied by a command such as, “Jack, please pick up your toys off the floor.” Or it may be a need to be respected, in which case the dialogue might be, “When you look at your phone when I’m talking to you I feel disrespected.”
I know that for me personally when communication is going wrong, my main needs are to be seen and heard, which ultimately are aspects of my need for love. If I don’t feel like that’s happening, my Carrie voice takes over pretty quickly.
If during a fight or miscommuncation we can recognize our need and express it without judging, attacking or labelling, we will not only be able to change the course of the conversation, but also help the other person better understand us.
Here are a few examples:
“When you call me superficial, I feel hurt. This ignores my need to be valued.”
“When you don’t look at me when we’re talking I feel disrespected. I need to feel respected.
“When you don’t ask me about my day I feel uncared for. I need to know that you care.”
First we observe the facts. “When you call me superficial.” If someone calls you superficial, to state this is observing a fact, not making a judgement or inferring. Here, you aren’t pointing the finger, you are making an observation.
We then acknowledge the feelings. How does the observation of what has been said/done make you feel? With this one it’s important to be specific about your feelings. Quite often we will say phrases like, “I feel misunderstood,” or “I feel judged,” neither of which are emotions. What is the emotion that comes from being misunderstood, or judged? Hurt? Angry? These are emotions.
We then state the need. What is the need underneath the emotion? If you feel angry, what needs to change for that anger to dissipate?
We’re all on the same side
When we fight we forget that we’re on the same team as the other person. Whether it’s a colleague we’re trying to work with at the office, or a spouse we’re feeling hurt by, or a teenager who doesn’t want to listen, we are on the same side.
Even if the person you are in communication with is a stranger, it’s helpful to remember one of my all time favourite quotes by Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.” If we can communicate with this in mind, we start working as a team; we figure out—and try to understand—our individual and common needs.
Think back to the last fight or dispute you had and then journal your answers to the following:
- What were the facts about what happened? Try to avoid judgement, blame or labelling here. What did the other person do or say?
- What feelings emerged for you in this situation? Remember to think of a specific emotion, rather than using words that aren’t actual emotions (e.g. neglected, unappreciated, overworked)
- What was your need in this circumstance and why? This one may take some thought. We are far better at connecting to our feelings than to the need underneath them.
Share your thoughts! What is the hardest part about communication for you? Do you think you’ll be able to incorporate this tool into your daily life?