“Here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling.”
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act II, Scene, 1 Line 2
I’ve asked parents who complain about having scolded their child over some particular behavior “one hundred times” regarding what it is the parent expects, and still their child fails to conform. They then say, in utter exasperation, that their child “just doesn’t get it!” At this point I often chide them with this question: “so tell me, what makes you think your child will get it on the 101st time?” As they ponder this I continue, “who is it that has the learning problem?” The fact is there is a teaching problem in play. People are seemingly addicted to such a treadmill approach of trying harder and harder at doing the same things over and over regardless of the fact that this does not work or prove to be effective. Doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result has long been said to be a sure sign of insanity.
Part of our difficulty is we think that communication is all about skills and techniques. Granted, there are some wonderful skills to aid anyone, but they alone will never do the job. This is because communication is also an emotional process: Direction, distance and internal noise or anxiety, have a lot to do with the capacity for effective communication. Distance, emotionally speaking, is very important. If one is too close or too far away, they cannot hear the message. This means we need to be in contact with the listener without overwhelming them. Each of us has two basic needs: the need for closeness, and the need for distance or space. Each of us has a certain preferred quotient of these two needs. The person we are attempting to communicate with also has his/her quotient, as well. This difference between our needs can play havoc with our attempt to communicate. Thus these differing needs for more distance or closeness are rarely ever addressed. I may feel claustrophobic or “boxed in” as you step in to my personal space to get the closeness you are seeking. So I back away, leaving you to feel abandoned or left out. Usually we do not address this inner conflictual issue, but remain focused on the topic or content we are trying to address.
Also, we cannot communicate with someone who is moving away from us. Direction, again as an emotional issue, is another critical dynamic that plays out in our capacity for effective communication. This emotional dynamic within our communication is both literal and figurative. If the other person is moving away and/or is focused on other things, people, or situations, we won’t have any effective conversation. I may be running late for my meeting across town and as you speak to me I am only “half” listening, or I give “lip service” while probably not retaining any of what each of us has said. How to have someone advance toward you is both art form and a skill. It also has to do with attitude. If we make the other person wrong in our mind we certainly are not starting out well. It is likely to have that person then not want to advance in our direction and if they do it may be in a combative or antagonistic way.
There is also the emotional dynamic of the noise we carry within our heads. If I am carrying a heavy heart or am reeling from a recent phone call about tragic news, or my taxes are overdue and I’m dreading the IRS, or even some lesser anxiousness that is stirring within me, I am very likely not capable of hearing whatever the message you are attempting to impart, no matter how well you do so. There is way too much noise within my brain that is preventing me from being fully present.
We can learn all sorts of great communication skills: giving clear “I” statements, doing solid “active listening”, and using good non-verbal techniques. But, none of these will matter if we avoid recognizing the emotional dynamics that may undermine any or all of the messages we are engaging in with someone.