The way we communicate with others is influenced by our emotions and how we perceive the world around us.
Children tend to feel powerless in the big world, and when they feel that way their response to wrongdoing can be “I did it because my sister was mean to me” or “because my friend wouldn’t listen.” Children feel that the environment imposes its own reasons on them and that they have no choice but to react in a certain way.
Most of the work I do to improve communication sits around the idea that we can choose how we feel and how we communicate with others.
Communication shouldn’t be reactive. It’s a choice.
When I hear “Andy doesn’t know how to talk to people,” “Sam needs to improve his communication skills,” or My team doesn’t provide feedback,”what I’m hearing is that somehow the dialogue between two parties is broken and one party has started following the narrative that it’s the other’s problem.
When we do this we violate rule number one of communication: I’m ready to see you and hear you – aka empathy.
In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg says the type of presence required for empathy is not easy to maintain.
He recalls a time when he saw his daughter looking in the mirror and saying “I’m ugly as a pig,” to which he responded “ You’re the most gorgeous creature God ever put on the face of the earth.”
She looked at him and left the room, slamming the door. Retrospectively, Marshall thought she’d probably needed empathy rather than reassurance; something like “Are you feeling disappointed with your appearance today?”
When we don’t get the responses we want from other people in terms of connection and engagement, we can generally do something about it. Until a person tells you they absolutely don’t want to talk to you or hear from you, there’s a chance to connect.
What we need to change is the narrative, from “She has a problem” to “We have a problem.”
Once I can admit that this is about us, how can I make you feel that I see you and hear you?