Co-Creative Communication

Open com­mu­ni­ca­tion is an essen­tial part of main­tain­ing any rela­tion­ship and yet these skills are rarely taught out­side the walls of a counselor’s office. Most of us don’t even know the com­po­nents of good com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Pos­i­tive dia­logue includes the abil­ity to both share truth­fully and lis­ten openly, but we must first know our­selves before we can do either. Self real­iza­tion is a pre-requisite of authen­tic dis­course … inti­macy is the result. Unfor­tu­nately, most of us have repressed and denied our inter­nal state for so long that we really have no idea of who we are. As a result, true shar­ing is impossible.

We often assume that we’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing just fine, when in fact we may be as much at fault as any­one for the relat­ing fail­ures we expe­ri­ence. Hav­ing grown up watch­ing our role mod­els avoid, deny and escape their inner real­i­ties, we incor­po­rate very dis­torted ideas about what it means to relate with authen­tic­ity. We learn to focus on how oth­ers “make” us feel, resort­ing to blame and pro­jec­tion rather than hon­est shar­ing. We then tend to carry these pro­jec­tions and dis­tor­tions into our lis­ten­ing, so that what we hear is often NOT what was said or intended. No won­der we are so often con­vinced that hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a dan­ger­ous thing!

Because we often tend to see things in terms of “black or white”, we buy into a notion that there is only one truth. Fur­ther­more, we are con­vinced that we are the ones who know what that is. If “they” don’t see it our way, then “they” are sim­ply wrong … end of con­ver­sa­tion. How­ever this leaves no room for a dif­fer­ence in opin­ion or sep­a­rate per­cep­tion. Much like the blind men who were placed around the ele­phant, we each hold a “piece of the truth”, which when shared, presents a totally dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, depend­ing on what part of the “ele­phant” we are describ­ing. How many times in life do we, blind to the oth­ers view, rail against them, sim­ply because we see the “tail” and they the “trunk” of a sit­u­a­tion? When we get trapped into think­ing that ours is the only real­ity, dis­cor­dant com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the usual unhappy outcome.

As a result of these kinds of painful encoun­ters, we become con­vinced that open com­mu­ni­ca­tion doesn’t work. We tell our­selves that hon­esty cre­ates dishar­mony, or that oth­ers can’t han­dle our truth; “It will hurt their feel­ings, or they will fall apart, and then it will be my fault.” We con­vince our­selves that if we speak our minds freely, we will be rejected, or attacked and we decide to keep quiet instead. With such faulty rea­son­ing, we not only talk our­selves out of an oppor­tu­nity for inti­mate dis­course, but we also fail to take care of our­selves. Sooner or later we dis­cover that instead of pre­vent­ing prob­lems, stuff­ing our hurt feel­ings and opin­ions only leads to fur­ther alien­ation. The very thing we have con­vinced our­selves will hap­pen if we do speak up is the thing that is cre­ated because we don’t. Here’s why.

As soon as we repress some­thing, regard­less of whether it’s a feel­ing, resent­ment, or unwanted behav­ior, we are keep­ing a secret. Secrets inevitably cre­ate dis­tance, because detach­ment is a nat­ural con­se­quence of hold­ing back. Of course, the other per­son feels the sep­a­ra­tion between us, but because they don’t know what it’s about, they make up their own story. They then project this onto us, as if it’s fact. (More likely it’s a dis­tor­tion based on their own dys­func­tional con­vic­tions about life, and prob­a­bly has noth­ing to do with the given sit­u­a­tion.) As a result, they pull away. Real dishar­mony comes about when we start blast­ing each other out-loud with our var­i­ous pro­jec­tions and assumptions.

This hap­pens more often than I like to admit in my own life, even know­ing what I do about the out­come of with-holding. My mate does or says some­thing which I inter­pret in a neg­a­tive way and I feel resent­ment. Because that is not accept­able, I imme­di­ately deny and stuff my feel­ings. He feels the result­ing dis­tance and makes up his own story about what is going on, which he then lays on me as “the way it is”. We can go round after round with each other, both con­vinced that we are right, and grow­ing ever more frus­trated that the other one refuses to “hear us”. Sound familiar?

For rela­tion­ships to flour­ish, we must be will­ing to under­stand that blam­ing, inter­pret­ing and pro­ject­ing onto the other all the things they‘ve done to us is not hon­est shar­ing. For one thing, we can only speak with author­ity about our own real­ity, not theirs. Besides, it is rare indeed that any­one (out­side our­selves) is doing any­thing to us anyway.

No-one else can “make us” feel. Put sim­ply, our emo­tional truth is deter­mined by the way we inter­pret what goes on around us. This per­cep­tion is founded upon our life expe­ri­ence … our his­tory. Until we take respon­si­bil­ity for the way our per­sonal biog­ra­phy affects the way we view things, we will go on blam­ing and pro­ject­ing! Once we rec­og­nize that every indi­vid­ual sees life through their own uniquely tainted lens, we begin to com­pre­hend the eti­ol­ogy of rela­tional dis­cord. We can then begin to allow oth­ers to have their own real­i­ties, rather than insist­ing that ours is the only (right) one.

For instance, if I announce in class that we‘re tak­ing the after­noon off, every stu­dent will react accord­ing to their own inter­pre­ta­tion of what’s been said. Whereas one stu­dent may rejoice because it means the after­noon free, another may spi­ral into anger, feel­ing cheated out of an expen­sive ses­sion. One may see it as a reward for work well done, while another hears it as an impli­ca­tion of her unim­por­tance to me. The point being that every sin­gle per­son will react accord­ing to their own inter­pre­ta­tion. There will be as many “truths” as there are indi­vid­u­als in the room.

This brings us to the other half of the open com­mu­ni­ca­tion process … that of becom­ing respon­si­ble lis­ten­ers. This means learn­ing how to lis­ten with­out dis­tor­tion or con­dem­na­tion. Oth­er­wise, we may find that oth­ers do not choose to share freely with us, and we will go on ver­i­fy­ing all the delu­sions we hold about the dan­gers involved in being authentic.

Peo­ple instinc­tively revert to dis­hon­esty when they don’t feel safe. If a mother catches her three year old with her hand in the for­bid­den cookie-jar and angrily demands, “Are you into the cook­ies!?” What do you think that ter­ri­fied child’s imme­di­ate response is likely to be? Denial, right? Even though she has been caught red-handed, her fear will prompt her to choose self-protection over hon­esty. The same holds true, irre­gard­less of our age. Dis­hon­esty is born out of fear. Our chal­lenge then is to become a safe har­bor for hon­esty. We can encour­age truth­ful shar­ing by main­tain­ing an atti­tude of open acceptance.

Inter­rog­a­tive lis­ten­ing may work in the court­room, but it often fails mis­er­ably in real life. Some­times we are tempted to try and inter­ro­gate some­one into “con­fes­sion”. Con­sider instead, turn­ing your ques­tions into state­ments of per­sonal truth. For instance, rather than ask­ing “Are you lying?”,(which is likely to induce an imme­di­ate defen­sive response) you might state; “I’m afraid that you’re not telling me every­thing.” Here, you are shar­ing an hon­est con­cern, rather than attempt­ing to cor­ner them with an accusatory question.

When we fail at being safe lis­ten­ers, we may very well find that oth­ers are not will­ing to tell us how they really feel, or see things. For instance, if we con­stantly inter­rupt when some­one is try­ing to relate some­thing impor­tant to us, we send the mes­sage that we’re not really inter­ested in hear­ing them.

Some­times we tell our­selves that we can’t han­dle what oth­ers have to say. This is a dan­ger­ous con­vic­tion. It is one that can set us up for a life­time of being tip-toed around, with friends and loved ones shar­ing with us only watered down ver­sions of their real­i­ties, at best. Super­fi­cial rela­tion­ships result.

If we use what is shared with us to manip­u­late, or attack, either overtly or with stony silence, we def­i­nitely are not prac­tic­ing safe lis­ten­ing. This kind of behav­ior cre­ates ten­sion and dis­tance and leads to lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion. There is no way oth­ers will want to share their inner­most real­i­ties with us if they feel judged or ridiculed.

The best way to prac­tice skill­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion is to be will­ing to set aside, for the moment, your own ver­sion of real­ity. Remind your­self that your truth is prob­a­bly not the way they see it. Be will­ing, as the old say­ing goes, to “walk a mile in their moc­casins”, by lis­ten­ing to them with total pres­ence. Allow your­self to really hear what they’re say­ing and then mir­ror back only what you heard, rather than your inter­pre­ta­tion. Too often, we lis­ten only long enough to snatch a word or phrase that will serve to prove our point. We then jump in with our rebut­tal, or accu­mu­lated “evi­dence”, with­out hav­ing heard them at all. Such defen­sive­ness leads to assum­ing an offen­sive stance. We attack, think­ing we are merely defend­ing our­selves. If, on the other hand, we are will­ing to prac­tice being safe lis­ten­ers, then there’s a good chance that our part­ner will be able to relax and set aside their own affront long enough to return the favor.

Know­ing our truth and speak­ing it, along with unbi­ased lis­ten­ing are the essen­tials for pro­vid­ing safe, hon­est and lov­ing rela­tions. As we con­sis­tently prac­tice these things, our capac­ity for inti­macy and cre­ativ­ity increases. As a result, we exude authen­tic­ity at all lev­els, which inspires oth­ers to want to par­tic­i­pate with us in the art of co-creative communication.

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