Tag Archives: effective

Communication

Last week, my partner and I went to the movies and saw Arrival. Without giving any spoilers, I found it a stunning story about communication, among other things. It was the communication piece that really grabbed my attention, though.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Ever since then, I’ve been thinking in a newly focused and intentional way about communication—what it means, how it looks, where it breaks down and how to do it well.

The truth is, I don’t want to know how to do it well. I want to know how to do it perfectly.

Another truth is I’m always thinking about communication, because I’m always working on my book, on this blog or on relationships, and they all involve communication. My partner says there is no relationship without communication, and I think he’s right.

As regular readers know I am wont to do, I pulled out my Random House Collegiate Dictionary to give myself a starting place. Anyone who’s used a dictionary knows there are often multiple meanings for any given word, so I made a list of the definitions I liked, cut and pasted a little, and came up with this (emphasis is mine):

Communication:

  • To give or interchange information to/with one another.
  • To express one’s true thoughts, feelings and moods easily.
  • To have or form a connecting passage.

Although I’m intellectually satisfied with this definition, it feels incomplete and inadequate. In fact, it makes me mad. If only effective communication was this easy and simple! Instead, it seems to be one of the most desperately difficult things we do, and we must communicate if we are to manage life in today’s world.

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How many ways does communication break down for us in a day? Are we even aware of all the ways it breaks down? How often are we communicating something completely unintentional?

At the same time, have we ever, in the history of humankind, had so many devices and forms of communication at our disposal? Have we ever had access to so much information and so many other people?

So why aren’t we happier, more authentic, more secure and sure of our worth? Why are so many of us starving for healthy, fulfilling connection? What’s missing?

If I knew, I would fix it in my relationships, but therein lies one of the problems.

This is the part that always sneaks up and bites me in the ass.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Not everyone wants the level and quality of communication I do. Generally, I don’t take this cold little fact personally, but among my nearest and dearest it does feel personal, absolutely. I feel utterly and completely rejected and shut out, in fact.

Another problem is that not everyone is capable of the level and quality of communication I am. Many people carry terrible damage or experience disability that prevents them from being able to participate in touch, in sex, in eye contact and nonverbal cues, even in conversation. I can tell you from personal experience it can be very, very difficult to sort out those who want to and are unable to from those who simply don’t want to. In the end, it doesn’t matter, it all comes to the same thing. When communication is limited, relationship is limited.

Limitation frustrates me, whether it’s my own or others’. I can do more. I want to do more.

A third issue is that communication is two-edged. It’s an enormously powerful skill and ability, both constructively and destructively. We all know people who use communication as a weapon, not a tool. Sometimes, a simple, ominous clearing of the throat can be far more terrifying and damaging than a blow. Both actions are communication. Even worse are people who deploy words that say one thing and an action that says another, like the abuser who says he loves you while he hits you. This is called gaslighting, and I’ll blog about it in the future. It needs a post all its own.

A fourth point is that we don’t have enough silence in the world. Silence is the cup that holds communication. It takes time to write, to create, to speak, to hug, to make love, to nurse an infant. It takes time to nurture a friendship, a lover, a child. Sitting with the ill or dying takes time and quiet. Listening takes time and presence. Our slavery to technology and stimulation has all but eliminated uninterrupted time for our relationships with ourselves, let alone with others.

And that brings up a fifth aspect. If we don’t, won’t or can’t communicate effectively and honestly about who we are, what we need and want and the truth of our thoughts and feelings, we can’t form a connecting passage, to quote the above definition. We’re not even connected to ourselves.

As though all those things didn’t make communication a big enough hairball, we have to remember who we are. We’re human, which is to say each one of us carries stories, beliefs, expectations, memories, scars and bleeding wounds that get in our way every time we communicate, even with (especially with) those we care deeply about. We all have painful triggers. We all get hijacked. We all make assumptions, we misunderstand, deny, obfuscate, conceal. We all filter through our particular history and experience. Few of us have any training in effective communication. We can tweet or text a sentence or two, but ask us to do more and we’re at a loss. For one thing, we don’t have time to deal with it.

We also have rules about communication, individual rules, tribal rules, cultural rules. We have rules about acceptable language, rules about keeping secrets, rules about being indirect, rules about protecting others, rules about loyalty and duty, rules about privacy, rules about what we’re willing to reveal to whom, rules about who we trust and don’t.

Even the words we choose can make or break communication. Here’s an example out of my own life I’m feeling particularly resentful about at the moment.

I’m a woman, a partner, a sister, a daughter and a mother. I love wholeheartedly and I’m very clear about how important healthy relationship is to me. I know the people I love well, and I try hard to accommodate their personalities, preferences and idiosyncrasies. I’m not Miss Fixit. I’ve no investment in protecting people, and the four men in the world who I love most are unbelievably capable and intelligent adults.

When I say, “What can I do to help? “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “Is there anything I can do for you today?” I’m not implying they can’t manage their lives, dammit! I’m giving a message of love. I’m saying, “I’m here. You matter to me. I’m glad to lend you support. I’d love to collaborate/cooperate/work with you.” I’m making a connection. I’m giving what I most want. Catch me being insulted if someone asks if they can help me figure out how to run the errands, take care of work and cook a meal!

My male partner says, with great patience, that I should use the word “assist” instead of help.

Seriously???? These four idiot men, who know me better than anyone else, need me to tippy-toe with my language in order to hear a message of love and support?

Never mind. I’m over it. Figure out your own damn life, and I’ll figure out mine.

Furthermore, catch me allowing any of them to help me, even though I know that’s connecting for them. They don’t need anything from me, I don’t need anything from them.

See how that breaks down?

And half of that is about me. I’ve been taught to be indirect in my language, I’m giving others what I want myself (this never works well, because the recipient rarely understands that’s what I’m doing), I’m coming across as relentlessly mumsy-wumsy and overprotective, and I’m assuming these four men are like me and won’t ask for help if they need it, but I’m the one who can’t ask for help, and now I’ve fastened myself more firmly in that position because they won’t cooperate with me and allow me to love them, so I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of…

And so on.

My conclusion about all this is that communication among human beings is a clusterfuck. It’s confusing. It’s messy. Most of us don’t know what the hell we’re doing and many of us are not that well intentioned in the first place. We have wildly varying degrees of ability with wildly varying aspects of communication. We try to hide, we misunderstand, we make mistakes, we don’t remember accurately and we’re often terrible at listening. We want to be right, we want to be validated and agreed with and we want others to meet our needs quickly and perfectly so life feels simple and uncluttered, emotionally, at least.

I’m never going to do it perfectly, and neither is anyone else.

But hey, let me know if I can help you in any way!

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Boundaries I: Strawberry Jam

Since I began this blog I’ve wanted to write about boundaries, not only because I myself am trying to develop better ones, but also because it seems to me boundaries are a large part of what’s broken in our culture.

We’re all aware of headlines from all over the world about human rights, ethnic and racial struggle, politics, sexual identity, religion and war. It seems to me boundaries are a core piece in each headline; an enormously complex piece of human function and dysfunction. How do we define, understand and effectively manage boundaries—both our own and those of others? How do we manage people who consistently violate boundaries?

Trying to organize my thoughts about this is like trying to herd cats. That being said, I can choose a starting point, so I’m going to start there and see if the subject organizes itself as I write and, hopefully, discuss with you.

I approach most subjects with a definition and a curiosity about what others are saying about it. A Google search for “boundary” tells me it’s a “dividing line.”

I’ve read two blogs recently about boundaries. One is written from an emotional intelligence perspective and one is about human rights, kind of a sidewise look at boundaries through the idea of respect. Both have contributed to my mental soup on this subject.

http://www.carmineleo.com/blog/whats-up-with-boundaries-a-quick-note

http://erscandle.blogspot.com/2016/07/yielding.html

My experience is that any piece of human function or dysfunction begins with myself. Self-reflection and self-inquiry are powerful tools for me, even though I occasionally wince at what I find!

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

So, let’s play a game. Open your refrigerator, or your pantry, or your cupboard. Look at a shelf where you keep food. Everything is in a container. The container around the food is a boundary. If none of that food had boundaries around it—well, that would just be a mess.

As we start thinking about boundaries from ourselves outward, let’s take a jar of strawberry jam. It’s a glass jar with a screw top lid and it’s clearly labeled strawberry jam. Effective boundaries, it seems to me, begin with a correct identification of what’s being contained. We have to know who we are before we can create healthy boundaries, because our boundaries won’t look like someone else’s. They’re not one size fits all. You can’t keep strawberry jam in an eggshell. You don’t want raw eggs in a jar labeled strawberry jam. A can with the label torn off could still be food, but it’s hard to use it effectively.

Mislabeling happens in two directions. There are those externally who tell us who we will, should or must be (or who we will, should or must NOT be), and there are our own internal expectations of who we are and what we need. If something goes wrong right here, at the first step of boundary work, we’ve got problems.

This takes us directly back to several dynamics I’ve blogged about—expectations, stories, saying yes and no, and pleasing people among them. My experience in my own western middle class culture has been painful pressure to be who I’m expected to be, not who I really am. If this can happen to me, a straight, white, average-looking, average-sized, able-bodied, unambiguous female, then I know there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are being systematically emotionally and spiritually maimed in ways I can’t begin to fathom.

This opposition to knowing and being ourselves is everywhere. Capitalism is based on the idea that you’re not okay as you are, but you will be if you buy…whatever it is.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

So, here’s the daily crime part for me. I’m strawberry jam. I’m not grape jelly, even though it’s more valuable. I’m not blackberry jam, even though it’s more attractive. I’m not raspberry jam, even though it’s more popular. Go ahead, glue a label on me that says “currant jelly.” I’m still going to be strawberry jam, and my true boundaries are a glass jar with a screw top lid and a label that says strawberry jam.

As cruel as it is, the external pressure we feel to be other than we are is not the most damaging thing. The most damaging piece is what we do internally to ourselves. I can spend my whole life with my fingers in my ears and my eyes squinched shut saying I’m peanut butter, but I’ll always be strawberry jam. Other people will know it. I’ll know it. Nothing will ever work for me because I’m in the world trying to be something I’m not. I won’t find my people. I won’t find my place. I won’t figure out and make my contribution. I won’t have effective boundaries. I won’t be happy.

Not only that, but my inability to manage and maintain effective boundaries affects everyone around me. If my jar is cracked or broken, strawberry jam is going to ooze out onto the shelf. It’ll make a mess. It’ll attract pests and predators. It’ll be wasted and it will impoverish the peanut butter, the toast, the butter and whatever else might have connected with me as strawberry jam.

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash

In order to have healthy boundaries we have to know what we need. In order to know what we need we have to know who we are. Finding out who we are can be a terrifying prospect, especially if we’re captive to what other people, media, our culture, and most of all ourselves tell us we MUST be in order to get loved and find happiness, meaning and purpose.

I have made up my mind I will build better boundaries. I will figure this out. If anybody out there will walk beside me, I’ll be very pleased. I know I’m not the only one struggling with this. In fact, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have trouble with some piece of it.

My starting point is right here, with myself. I’m strawberry jam and my boundaries are a glass jar and a screw top lid. My label says strawberry jam. I’ve no interest in forcing, persuading or coercing anyone else to be strawberry jam. I just know what I am. It might be that strawberry jam is outlawed, shunned, shamed, beheaded, tortured, raped, imprisoned, damned to Hell, unsaved, unenlightened, unlovable, unwanted, unworthy or lined up against a stone wall and shot under a hot sun. I’ll still be strawberry jam. I’m not confused and I’m not going to feel ashamed about it.

Peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich, anyone?

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

The Limits Of Our Power

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

In the last week I had a discussion with a young friend who’s going through a hard time.  I made myself available out of concern and compassion, telling my friend if she wanted to talk I would listen.

So I listened, and asked questions, and did my best to enter into her experience.  My agenda wasn’t to rescue, to fix or to advise, just to let her know I cared and help her think about options.

My intentions were good, but I walked away feeling as though I’d only irritated her and made things worse.  Ever since, I’ve been questioning what I said and how I handled this interaction.  Was I patronizing?  Condescending?  Obnoxiously optimistic? Aggressively parental?  Didn’t I listen well?

Or maybe my questions were the problem, not because they were bad questions but because they were good questions.  I’m reminded of people in my life who have approached my distress with the kinds of questions that made me want to hang up the phone or slap their face.  Not because they were bad questions, but because they challenged me to break out of the shrinking cage I was in.  They challenged me to take control, take responsibility, face my fear or think outside my usual box.

I’m not sure why, but when I’m good and miserable, or at panic stations, or swept up in powerlessness, I want someone to agree with me.  It’s hopeless.  I’m helpless.  It will never get better.  I made mistakes, bad choices, stupid decisions and now I’m paying a price I deserve to pay.  I’ve dug a hole so deep I can’t get out without some kind of divine intervention.  I need to be rescued.  I have to wait for someone to help me.

Sitting here writing this it sounds silly, but it’s not silly when you’re in it.  We’ve all had times like this.  What I know is that my best friends in crisis are the ones who metaphorically kick me in the butt.  They won’t walk down the pity path with me.  They won’t agree that I screwed up and made bad choices.  They don’t admit the past was apocalyptic and the future will be catastrophic.

These people keep redirecting me back to what I can do right now to help myself, and away from everything else, and sometimes they’re not gentle about it.

This is tricky because it’s counterintuitive, at least to me.  When I’m faced with a problem, I want to square right up to it, obsess, throw myself at it, beat my head against it and leave the rest of my life unoccupied.  It’s either an all-out wrestling match or I eat ice cream out of the carton (a big carton!), stop taking showers, binge watch ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ all night and sleep all day.

Neither of these approaches has worked for me.  The only thing that has ever worked is to identify where my power is right now and let the rest go.  I don’t know why that works, I don’t know how it works, but I know that it does.

When I was a low-income single mom, what this meant was realizing that summer was ending and the boys would need new winter coats that I couldn’t afford, and we would need groceries a lot sooner than that, but I had no money.  And yes, I was working.  At one point I worked two jobs and attended school.

Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash

Anyway, I developed a habit of shaping the day around what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do.  I tried not to think about the next day, the next week, the next winter.  I figured out what we’d eat that day from what we had, and I did what I could do—all the things that can be done without money.  Like playing with Legos on the living room floor, or taking a walk, or reading aloud to the boys, or doing laundry, or working in the garden, or scrubbing the kitchen floor.

Some days were so hard I just lived five minutes at a time.  It was all I could handle.

My kids are in their twenties now.  All those five minutes, all those one-day-at-a-times passed and we weren’t homeless, we weren’t without food and we always managed winter coats, thanks to Goodwill.  I have no idea how it all worked.  I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.

Now, it’s true that I found jobs, got trained and educated, did without things like cell phones and cable TV.  I did what I could to help myself through those years, and I had a lot of outside help, too.  But my point is I tried not to get stalled with my nose touching a brick wall.  I tried to look in another direction—in a direction where I could make choices.  Doing that didn’t make the brick wall disappear, but somehow it allowed me to move past it.

Getting back to my friend, I tried to ask questions about where she did have power, but she felt powerless in every direction and the questions only reinforced the feeling instead of helping her reconsider her situation.  I left the conversation feeling upset and frustrated and decided I needed to take a step back, give my friend space and let it all unfold.

Interestingly, in the time between that conversation and this minute, my friend got what she needed from someone else, made some hard choices and now sees her way ahead, at least for a few steps.

What I’ve learned from this is that no matter how much I love and care for someone, no matter how much I want to share what I’ve learned in life, sometimes I just can’t be useful or effective.  That doesn’t mean, however, that my loved one won’t get what they need from someone else.  I’m trying hard to persuade myself this doesn’t make me a failure, but it’s uphill work.  Additionally, I have a sneaking suspicion that part of what I feel is nothing more than injured pride.  As long as I’m confessing, there might be jealousy in there, too.

I’ve also relearned the thing I wanted to teach.  It was clear to me I couldn’t be an effective support to my friend, that I couldn’t make her feel better, that I had nothing to offer that she could use.  However, two cords of wood were sitting in our driveway, so my partner turned on music and we stacked it in the barn.  He and I cleaned out a closet and I got my fall/winter clothes handy.  I was scheduled to work on Labor Day weekend and the day after, so I showed up for work and did my best.  I wrote a few pages of my current book and I wrote this blog.  Today I swim.  It was in the middle of all this that my friend came to me with the beginnings of her own solutions to her own problems.

Maybe my love and concern were only an added pressure for my friend.  Maybe the most helpful thing I did was step back and live my own life.  That, after all, is where my power is.

I just wish it didn’t feel so inadequate.

Photo by Jan Phoenix on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2016
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted