Communication 201

Hmm, just how DO I communicate?

This was the last paragraph from last week’s blog:

This is Part I because there is a lot to talk about here. So, my suggestion for you is to examine your communication this week. Homework is my favorite part of therapy and where most of the work gets done. You can talk with your therapist for an hour a week or read this blog for a few minutes a week, but then what do you do the rest of the time? You don’t have to work on it every minute of every day, but if you touched on it daily, imagine the growth that would be possible. See if you can tune into your thoughts during those important conversations or relationships. What do you think? Is it rational or reactive? Is it supportive or defensive? What are you looking for from your other, goodness or badness? How do you frame your view of them? What evidence are you using to come to your conclusion? I don’t know about you, but I have never had an important conversation where I didn’t learn something I absolutely didn’t know about that person. When I take the time to ask and listen, Mette will say something of value, something that reveals a thought or feeling I wasn’t seeing or hearing, and it softens me immediately. We fight out of reflex. Communication is the salve. See what you can see and hear this week and we’ll talk about it more next week.

If you were a client and we had ended our last session as I ended the blog, I would ask, “So, how did it go? What did you notice about your communication?” And then, I would wait. Sometimes there will be a long pause and sometimes there will be so much to say, it will flow right out. Usually, spending a week in observation or self-awareness doesn’t come together until you talk about it. I love the saying, “thinking out loud,” because so many insights don’t become visible until you start to talk about it. I guess it is a stream of consciousness exercise of sorts, allowing thoughts to come to the surface and hear what they sound like out loud.

There is a lot to manage during a conversation. If we think a thought each second, then we have a lot of thoughts when we are talking with someone. We all drift off to other topics when someone else is talking, you know, sometimes you can’t help but review your to-do list while the person you are talking to is mid-sentence. We are all pretty good at having the interested face hide the completely disconnected mind. Then there are all the thoughts you have that are connected to what they are saying but disconnect you from them, like, “I wonder if they are telling the truth?” “How do they know that?” And the list can go on for hours, especially if the conversation is emotionally charged. And then, our emotions can make us think differently, sometimes more negatively and sometimes more positively. This is where it becomes very hard to manage.

Being a good communicator is like being an expert juggler, you have to keep a bunch of balls in the air at the same time. When I was about ten, I got a kit called, “Juggling for the complete idiot” as a gift. It was from my older brother, go figure.  Anyway, I read the instruction booklet, practiced dropping a lot of the square bean bags, but eventually, it taught me to juggle. I got pretty good at three bean bags with two hands and moderately decent at two bean bags with one hand. The more I practiced, the better I became (duh). I tried to learn how to juggle four bean bags with two hands, but it always seemed too hard and I would lose my interest pretty quickly. But hey, I was ten years old, so it was good enough for me then. If I think about my ability to communicate like my learning to juggle, it makes sense to me. I can also sort of apply this kind of logic to others and their ability to communicate. How many hands do you need and how many bean bags can you keep in the air at one time? Really, the number of bean bags or hands can be compared to the intensity or emotionality of the conversation.

Here is one of the most important questions no one ever gets asked or given the opportunity to answer when it comes to having a conversation: “Do you have enough capacity for this conversation at this time?” Are you physically, mentally, emotionally, or psychologically in a good place to talk about this right now? What I find instead is that people rush into it because it is important or intense or emotional. Sometimes, conversations are time-sensitive, but not always, and you would not know that most of the time. Like some of you, when I get upset, I want to talk about it NOW! Some of you are more the opposite, let’s NOT talk about it now (or ever, please). But we force the conversation at the expense of being ready for it. I really thinking that paying better attention to timing produces a better result. For example, before we moved to Florida, Mette woke up at 4:30 am to drive an hour and a half to work. By the time I woke up and called her, she had already been in the car an hour and her mind was revved up and going. Usually when I called to say good morning, I was just sitting down with my first cup of coffee so NOT warmed up at all. All her thoughts from the previous hour flew out of her mouth, overwhelming me. For her, it was comfortable and proper, for me, it was sudden and tough to catch up to. I would often have to remind her I was just waking up and to go easy on me. She would laugh and apologize and slow down. It made our morning chats productive and pleasant. The irony is I had to communicate about how I needed her to communicate so our communication could improve.

We use this kind of awareness all the time now with our conversations and timing. Sometimes in the evening, she is too tired to talk about something intense and so I have to wait, or vice-versa. While it can be frustrating to have to wait, the outcome is so much better that it has become easier to honor her timeline or to ask her to honor mine. We want to have important conversations when we are in a good, powerful place, and so should you. Begin to think about conversations and communication like performance. I define performance as, “anything you do where you expect a result.” So, a conversation is a performance, especially if you have an expectation at the end of it.

I try to think of communication as important as a swim meet used to be. If who I am talking to is important, I need to think about that and make sure that my end of the communication is as good as I can get it. You know, consider all the different juggling bean bags that are in the air. I prepare to communicate just like I would prepare to race. Do I have a strategy? Am I warmed up and ready physically (not tired or hungry)? Have I trained the proper amount to expect to be able to have the entire conversation, you know, go the whole way?  Do I know who I am communicating with and what they are like? Do I know what their goal is for the conversation? How do I keep track of myself so that if I become fatigued, I have a resource for that? If your head is spinning right now, then I am doing my job. I want us to begin to think about communication in a more powerful way. More powerful than, “Ugh, I have to talk to this person right now,” and more like, “How can we use this conversation to forward things?” In order to be able to juggle more and more bean bags, I had to add a skill for each additional bag. Do you have a plan, a resource, a training program for evaluating and then adding skills and capacities to your ability to communicate? If not, you will be stuck at whatever level you are currently at, and your conversations are not likely to produce any greater results than you currently have. In order to improve, you have to add to your toolbox. Now is a great time to get to work on this.

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