Why is it So difficult to communicate? A starting point is a wide-spread lie we tell others — and ourselves.
A misleading exchange, a billion times a day: “Hey, how’s it going?” “Great, thanks. You?” “I’m fine. C ya…” — has communication occurred, or been blocked? In this barrage of “checking in,” there’s no real exchange of information, but there’s a mutual deception. In asking the question, we pretend that we’ve actually seen and heard the other. In answering, we’ve followed convention but hidden our experience. Why? Safety. It’s “normal” which means it’s comfortable. Speed. It’s fast, which means we don’t need to get caught up. Script. We all know we’re “supposed to” stay on the surface, so we do.
No Blood, No Foul?
So what? We’re following a social convention — and isn’t it better than simply ignoring the other person? The risk of this surface non-communication is the illusion of inquiry. If we walk out from this “discussion” pretending we’ve actually understood, we block the real data that’s available. I suspect that as this surface transaction has become the cultural norm, simultaneously we’ve found it increasingly difficult to have more substantive dialogue. “Norms,” by definition, are what’s comfortable. What’s proper. What’s prudent. So we’ve become used to a shallow exchange, and this leads us to miss invaluable data. As George Bernard Shaw famously said,
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Don’t fall in that trap. Remember this “secret:”
There is always more to the story.
How To Ask About Feelings
Nearly 20 years ago, I was teaching about the Vietnam war, and talked one of the veterans who counseled other vets. I explained that my dad was a veteran, but he’d never told me about his experience in the war. The counselor asked, “When are you asking him? On the way to the airport? In a busy restaurant? You just can’t give a real answer to that question unless you’re sitting by a lake with a case of beer and a whole weekend ahead of you.” The more complex and challenging a topic, the more time and space will be needed for a real answer. If I’m going to be vulnerable enough to reveal something ugly, scary, painful, serious — or even just complicated — I’m not going to do it in a casual, hurried, public setting. I’m not going to talk if I can tell you don’t have time. And, if you want me to be honest about my experience, let’s go real. It’s back to those 3 Ss: Safety: Start by building a trusting relationship; ask questions that are appropriate to the level of trust… or trust+1 (slightly more serious/challenging than yesterday’s question). Make sure there’s sufficient privacy and time for the seriousness of the question. Pull someone aside, go for a walk, sit side-by-side, make a space. Speed: More serious conversations take longer. Find five minutes for a five-minute-level check-in. Make an hour for a much more serious one. If you’re in a rush, people feel that, and they’ll conform to the “I’m in a rush” signal you’re sending (or, if they don’t they might need to learn that norm…) Script: While “surface” is the starting norm, the way you respond tells the other person what to expect next. If they perceive that you’re following a script, you send a message that this isn’t real. If you invalidate their ideas and feelings at the outset, they “know” not to be honest. If you push or pull, they “know” this isn’t a real dialogue. On the other hand, if you take turns, sharing, asking, listening, recognizing, reflecting… as the dialogue flows back and forth, it also flows beyond the surface.