Lock and Key

“Communication sometimes is not what you first hear, listen not just to the words, but listen for the reason.” – Catherine Pulsifer

I recently read a book lent to me by a friend, which is always an interesting proposition, because I find that when someone tells me “you’ll love it!”, I frequently don’t.

She made no such claim, only suggested I read it, and while I can’t say I loved it, the story did interest me enough to read all the way through. It follows two young people who move through their high school and college years in an on-again/off-again relationship of sorts that can never seem to find solid footing.

I say a relationship “of sorts”, because they had a very odd dynamic- neither seemed to be able to fully invest in the relationship, but neither would walk away. Their connection was made of misunderstandings, and it seemed that both were purposely obtuse during critical emotional tipping points.

It was so aggravating.

I mean, maybe it’s wrong to be frustrated by fictional characters, but I honestly wanted to shake both of these people and ask, “Why can’t you just say what you mean? Why don’t you just ask what you want to know”?

It was an extreme portrayal of dysfunctional communication, but it does get me thinking about why communications break down, even with the people we’re closest to. If you’ve read the Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, you might have recognized that the people you love communicate their affection in a very different way than you give or expect to receive it. We sometimes misunderstand the intention of a word or action, and so misinterpret its message.

More often, we have a mental or emotional barrier that calls a halt to communications, and these are some of the issues that seem to trip us up most consistently:

History. If you weren’t raised to talk about difficult things, it can be hard to open up and make yourself vulnerable. These are behaviors we learn first at home- or don’t- and the lessons we learn first are often hardest to unlearn. We might very literally have to retrain our brains in order to open the lines of communication.

If you’ve had unhealthy relationships in the past where you were punished (physically or emotionally) for opening up, working to create two-way communication can feel genuinely unsafe. But your new, healthy relationship requires it; and your efforts will teach you two things:

  • There is a difference between something feeling dangerous and actually being dangerous.
  • Healthy communication will not always be easy, but it will always be safe. Always.

Pride. Pride can put the brakes on communication a couple of different ways. First, if you value your own opinion above all others, it almost guarantees that you’re a terrible listener. Someone who is just waiting for their turn to talk is not really listening, and they certainly aren’t understanding the other person’s perspective. Second, pride prevents compromise. Someone who is absolutely certain that they hold the high ground leaves others nowhere to go with their thoughts and emotions.

Anger. We all know that anger can cause us to lash out and say things we don’t mean – never a good thing for communication. It can also actually affect the way your brain processes information; studies show that when someone is antagonized, they have difficulty processing logical statements. When that happens, we lose the ability to understand explanations and solutions offered by others. Sometimes the best thing you can do for communication is to say, “I’m too angry to talk about this right now. I need to cool off, think about this a bit, and come back when I can discuss it more rationally”. And then, yes, you must follow through and do that.

Consider how you want to communicate with the people you hold dearest- don’t you want to be spoken to as if you are appreciated, respected and loved no matter what? Is that what you’re offering in return?

We can’t expect every interaction to be perfect. We’re only human, after all. But we can recognize our own unhealthy tendencies and work to improve them, allowing us to communicate better in a critical moment. It’s so important, because happy lives are built on a foundation of strong relationships.

And communication, as they say, is key.

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