March 16, 2023

What We Have Here Is a Need to Communicate…

This article discusses what makes good communication, and why we get it wrong sometimes.

Christina Mengert
Two women talking

What We Have Here Is a Need to Communicate…

When I was in college, in the early days of email, typing out messages in a BASH shell interface (yes, I am that old), my email signature contained the famous quote from Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” I was being ironic, of course (being a young, disaffected college kid), but I was also often right: communication is one of our most powerful and precious gifts as human beings, but it can also be hard, and we do sometimes experience failures to communicate, despite our best efforts.


Given how much of our lives we spend talking and writing, it's easy to take for granted the extraordinary function of communication—that is, the ability, through symbols, to create a bridge between minds, to allow another person access to our interior worlds, and to gain access to someone else’s. Language gives us a way to form and share ideas, those thoughts that would otherwise live exclusively in the privacy of our own minds. Dr. Nigel Lester, psychiatrist and member of the Anthropedia Institute, describes this function as “the human superpower bar none.” Communication is a spectacular gift, but it can go spectacularly wrong sometimes. We might find ourselves in the midst of a minor but bewildering misunderstanding, or even experience a more serious breakdown in communication, and wonder, “how on earth did we get here?”


So why does this happen? And what are some of the hallmarks of good communication? Dr. Kevin Cloninger, Executive Director of Anthropedia and well-being coach, observes that one of the most important things we can do is communicate in calmness. We often communicate with each other when we are in states of emotional stress, when we’re rushing, or when we’re multi-tasking. And when we do this, we stop really empathizing and seeking to understand the person in front of us(even when it’s someone we really care about, whose thoughts and feelings genuinely matter to us). In other words, we lose alterity, or other-centeredness. We focus instead on what we want, what we need, our opinions, judgements, and fears, and we don’t give our full attention to the other person. Our perspective becomes more egocentric, and we stop really listening.


In this egocentric state, we’re often thinking more about our own judgements and worries, and our listening is hampered by a kind of emotional background noise (concerned about how another person is perceiving us or responding to us, or perhaps judging them for what they are saying or how they are saying it). Our perception becomes polluted, then, by our own mental chatter, and we often fail to really hear someone. And conversely, we sometimes have the feeling that we are not being heard, because the person across from us is preoccupied by their own emotional noise.

Good listening, on the other hand, involves a total state of attention, not just to what someone is saying, but also how they are saying it. In a calm listening state, we are hearing not just their words, but are also picking up on non-verbal cues (are they tense or stressed, are they nervous, or happy and relaxed?). And in this state, we’re also able to listen, not just to the other person, but to our own intuitions. We fundamentally have a feeling of unity with the person we’re listening to, that then informs our own communication.


To be good communicators, then, it helps to become aware of our own emotional triggers. Our outlooks (the unconscious mental backdrop that informs how we perceive or experience a situation) are always active and can lead us to misunderstand or even mishear what a person is saying. We assume we know what a person means without pausing to ask whether that assumption is warranted. Self-awareness, including an understanding of our personalities (as described by the Temperament and Character Inventory, or TCI), allows us to identify our potential distortions of perception. With more self-awareness, right when we’re about to explode, “I can’t believe you just said that!” we can take a step back, breathe, and ask ourselves, “what did they really say?” and “why is this emotionally triggering me?” This allows us to re-engage from a calmer, more measured place. It’s easier said than done, of course! It’s something we learn to do by doing it, one breath, one word at a time.


And in the end, perhaps the question is, are we really trying to understand each other? Are we willing to truly hear another person, even if what they say makes us uncomfortable, or makes us rethink assumptions we have about ourselves, our lives, or our world? Are we willing to love through disagreement, to allow that love to be the engine of our communication, with the hope that the relationship will continue to grow in a greater state of unity?


If we can honestly answer yes to all of these questions, then we truly will have communicated well with each other. And what an extraordinary thing that is.

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