There are some big holes in our education - how to work finances, geography, understanding of other cultures, empathy being just a few. One of those holes is in the area of communication. We are not taught how to talk to one another in helpful ways unless we go into very specific fields of work. Even then for many the education is sketchy at best. We are not taught how to confront in ways that are loving, effective, clear or understandable. We also are not taught how to listen and be with one another during hard times. Instead people tend to react and respond to their own feelings in one of the following unhelpful ways:
1. When hurt or upset, some people revert to name-calling or other accusatory behavior. Most people have not been taught that the most effective way to tell someone you are upset is to use an "I" statement: "I feel x when you do y because of z." I know that sounds canned, but it really does work. There are other ways to phrase this, but using statements about how you feel instead of talking about the other person is much much more affective than attacking, blaming or condemning the other. When people are called names or attacked, they usually respond by attacking back. No one hears, there is no possibility of movement or progression, the conflict escalates. Psychology tells us that when we are angry parts of our brain are literally turned off. That is why if you have a weapon in your hand when you become angry, it is far too easy to use it. When we become angry, the parts of our brain that make logical, rational decisions can't function. We also stop hearing. Being forced to use an "I" statement has the effect of calming us down to the point where we can actually hear one another and think. But again, we aren't taught how to do this. We aren't trained in calming ourselves down enough to be rational or to be able to communicate effectively.
As a result, many other people choose option 2:
2. When people don't like something, some people revert to the silent treatment. Instead of confronting (because they've realized that blowing up in someone's face doesn't work), many people opt instead to withdraw. This, too, is very unhelpful. It assumes the other person will notice and come to you. But if the other person is also a "withdrawer" then the result can be the disintegration of a relationship that otherwise could probably have been healed, worked through, reconciled. Sometimes people feel they need to pull back and just "get over it" on their own. But this, too, often backfires because the next time something happens, the unresolved issues have a way of popping back up as well. It also does not give the other person the opportunity to learn and grow. We all need help to be the best we can be, so honesty is a good thing. It calls us to learn, to grow, to do better in our relationships with other people. But people are afraid to speak their truth, especially if it is different from what other think, in part because they don't know the words to use that will help them to be heard, they are afraid of the response of the other (because again, few have been trained in how to do this), or they are afraid of creating conflict. There are ways to present things (again, using "I" statements, avoiding attacking or name calling another person's ideas or thoughts, presenting ideas as just that - ideas, rather than "truth"), that make it much easier for others to hear and understand. But these ways must be learned, they are not innately known.
As a result, many people additionally choose option three:
3. Some people choose to "process" with other people. There is another word for this: gossip. It can become worse than this, it can become a situation where people are incited to turn against others. But even if it doesn't go this far, gossip is still incredibly damaging. There is no way for a person to respond to gossip, to grow from gossip, to change because of gossip. Gossip again works only to alienate, isolate, and hurt others. It doesn't make things better. It damages relationships.
I want to list one more thing here that isn't helpful and is another choice many people make when communicating to others:
4. Giving advice. I've found that even people who are trained, who "know better" still cannot seem to resist this particularly bad way of responding to others. We know that when people talk about what is going on with them, they are wanting to be heard. We know that when people share their pain and frustrations they need to feel understood. Giving advice does not lead to a person feeling understood. It usually leads to a person feeling put down. The advice giver is implying that they understand the situation better than the person in the situation themself. The advice giver is implying that they are more knowledgeable, wiser, more understanding than the person themself. Unless a person specifically asks for advice, therefore, it is much better to empathize, to be present, to listen. But even those trained in this often seem to have a hard time refraining from offering advice.
In contrast to these ways of responding to one another, I find myself thinking of two phrases that are helpful when we communicate with one another. The first is THINK:
Is whatever you are communicating:
The other is RESPECT:
(take) Responsibility for what you say and feel without blaming or attacking others.
(use) Empathetic listening
(be) Sensitive to differences in communication, in experience, in view points.
Ponder what you hear and feel before you speak
Examine your own assumptions and perceptions.
Trust ambiguity because there usually is not one right or wrong.
There are other ways to communicate badly and there are other ways to communicate well. But for today that is enough. To return to my original paragraph: we really need to begin teaching communication for everyone. The world would be a much saner place if we could simply learn how to talk to one another, and even more, how to listen.