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.