Communication, 101 (part I)
Who taught you to communicate? Not talk, which was most likely your parents, but communicate. There is a difference between the two, an enormous difference, and I think it is under-estimated, under-appreciated, and under-taught. I read an aphorism once that said, “Anything can be resolved in communication.” I must have been twelve. It was a small, green booklet that had dozens of aphorisms from Werner Erhard but that is the only one I remember. It has stuck with me all these years and I have said it more times than I could count when trying to help people find resolution. As a psychologist, helping people communicate is most of my job. We just don’t know how; we were never taught how to communicate in a productive or powerful way, and so we struggle along, talking, but not communicating.
I have a wonderful client (I say that about all of my clients), and she is struggling with communication in an important relationship. She is smart, funny, clever, college educated, travelled, insightful, talented, successful, and a good person. She is the kind of person you would want in your tribe or at the very least, your office. Let’s call her Joan. Joan is in her early forties, Caucasian, an amateur equestrian, and divorced. She has sort of embarked on a new relationship, the first one after her divorce, and in an effort to do things better the second time around, is trying to figure out how to have better communication. As I watch her struggle, my own struggles become more and more obvious. I wonder if other shrinks feel this way, a short step ahead of the client, enough to help but requiring work to stay out in front. I love the way the people I work with push me to work on myself constantly. With each moment I help, I learn. I always feel a little funny taking their money…
Joan needed to ask a difficult question with a potentially deal-breaking answer. On the surface, it was possible to wonder if she had been betrayed. But the surface rarely tells the whole story and sometimes even confuses us even more. Asking the difficult question had become unavoidable because now that it had become a question, it would fester until it was either answered or it ultimately wrecked the relationship. You can only sweep so much under the rug before it trips you and you fall down. Joan was nervous and concerned about how to approach the conversation and I could feel it for her. Spoiler alert: it went well and there was no betrayal, but we will get to that. What was fascinating to me was the process and the questions that emerged as we talked about how to do it.
I have been meditating on and off for about twenty-five years, and last year in May, I got serious about it again. In an effort to “walk my talk” when asking clients to meditate, I figured I had better be a meditator myself. You know, trying to stay a step ahead so as to be able to lead authentically. One of the countless benefits I have observed over the last 500 days is an increased awareness of my “little voice.” You know, the inner monologue (some call it a dialogue but since it is only me, I call it a monologue), private voice, the voice in your head, or self-talk. You have heard me say we think 50,000 thoughts a day, which is about a thought a second, so just try to remember each thought you have had since you started reading this. It is overwhelming, not possible, and we are really not designed to need to remember each thought, each second. That being said, while I can’t remember each thought from each second, what I have begun to notice in much greater detail are the thoughts I have that I think I should be sharing and that I simply don’t. I never realized how much I keep inside. Some of them are just too scary sometimes. It’s funny to me and if you know me, probably to you. I talk a lot, I share myself quite a bit, I am an extrovert AND a psychologist, and a know-it-all, so happy to tell you what I think about most things, most of the time. But there is so much I don’t say…
The obviousness of this has been greatly impacted by the loss of my mom last year. Here I sit, staring at my computer, tears welling up, throat getting tight, in that moment when I get to decide to share my thoughts or just keep them inside and to myself, to fester or eat away at me, bit by bit. I have known, heck, I have been trained to talk about it. I encourage the people I work with to talk about it, to let it out. The thing about talking about it is that the thought changes once it leaves your lips. It never ceases to amaze me how something you have rehearsed mentally so many times, sounds so damn different (usually stupid), once you say it out loud. I feel like releasing it from my mouth is akin to jumping off a ten-meter platform. You stand there, terrified, knowing you need and want to jump, and waiting for the fear to subside, but it never does. You simply must let it out and deal with the fear anyway. I miss my mom and don’t want to say that. I don’t know why but I don’t. It makes me cry sometimes and I don’t love that. It is not that it makes me feel weak or vulnerable, I’m okay with that, it is that I can’t fix it. She is gone and I can’t fix that. So, I notice all the times each day I don’t want to say that, and then I say it sometimes anyway. Sometimes, it is just to my horse or my cat and sometimes it is to my sister or Mette. Saying it livens the feeling and perhaps that is what I resist.
When Joan was working to figure out how to ask the difficult question, we talked quite a bit about both of their abilities to communicate. Joan is the one that initiates and maintains the communication in the relationship. That is actually very common that one person drives that ship. Think about your relationships and you will see the same, especially in very close ones. It is a personality trait and having opposing traits actually works well. I asked Joan how she communicates, and she couldn’t quite answer. She couldn’t answer for the other person, either. We both sat in fascination that two adults, successful adults, had no real process, template, or training in how to communicate. I thought about my relationship and how we communicate. It takes something, something more than words, more than emotions, more than necessity. It takes commitment. Commitment to seeing it all the way through. Commitment to remaining on the same team, because if you are in a relationship, you are a team. Commitment to honoring each other, no matter how upset you become. Commitment to NOT saying things you can’t take back. Commitment to remaining connected to your love and hopefully respect for each other. And commitment to having the conversation make the relationship better.
My parents had terrible communication. Mostly what they had was fighting. I don’t have a single memory of a resolution of a fight, just the fight, and then either my dad left for a while, or they went behind closed doors and came out when everything was “fine.” I wish they had let us see both, both the fight and then the resolve. Many clients tell me they never even saw their parents fight, let alone resolve an issue. Why on earth this is some kind of state secret is a mystery to me. How are your children supposed to learn to fight and get all the way through it without an example? TV and movies and books. That is where we learn and that is terribly sad. For it to sell, it has to be dramatic, emotional, terrifying, and so we are exposed, over and over, to terrible communication. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, someone does something stupid, they fight, someone storms out, someone does something even more stupid, and as the heart is about to break into tiny pieces, someone apologizes and just like that, wedding bells. Terrible, a terrible template for how to have a relationship. It doesn’t work that way in real life, but if that is the only thing we are exposed to, what other choice do we have?
This is Part I because there is a lot to talk about here. So, my suggestion for you is to examine your communication this week. Homework is my favorite part of therapy and where most of the work gets done. You can talk with your therapist for an hour a week or read this blog for a few minutes a week, but then what do you do the rest of the time? You don’t have to work on it every minute of every day, but if you touched on it daily, imagine the growth that would be possible. See if you can tune into your thoughts during those important conversations or relationships. What do you think? Is it rational or reactive? Is it supportive or defensive? What are you looking for from your other, goodness or badness? How do you frame your view of them? What evidence are you using to come to your conclusion? I don’t know about you, but I have never had an important conversation where I didn’t learn something I absolutely didn’t know about that person. When I take the time to ask and listen, Mette will say something of value, something that reveals a thought or feeling I wasn’t seeing or hearing, and it softens me immediately. We fight out of reflex. Communication is the salve. See what you can see and hear this week and we’ll talk about it more next week.