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.
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):
- 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.
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.
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!
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