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ˈempəTHē: A Lesson in Communication

A breakdown of why we struggle to communicate with our loved ones... and how to solve the problem.

Empathy
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

THE STRUGGLE WITH COMMUNICATION

I sat with my friend Drew at a café where the calm, ambient chatter of patrons perfectly complimented the distinct aroma of coffee. Though the scene was set for relaxation, there was a weight on my heart and he knew it. “You alright?” he asked in a composed yet curious manner. There’s a moment of hesitation – I didn’t want to open up pandora’s box, nor did I want to maintain that painfully obvious aura of disturbance. I exuded negative energy and I knew it.

Normally I would dip my toe in the water and lead with the typical “so I have this friend…”, but this is one of my best friends we’re talking about here, so I skipped the diversion and took a leap off of the high dive, spilling my heart on the coffee table.

As I opened up about my relationship struggles and my inability to effectively communicate with a person whom I care for with all of my heart, he listened and absorbed, asking simple questions that helped me untie the knots in my mind. His attentiveness put my soul at ease and I felt like my head was lifted out of the haze and into the light. In that moment of clarity, I started to wonder why we can have these insightful conversations with friends during times of struggle, yet we struggle to communicate in the same manner to our significant others.

EMOTIONAL BLINDNESS

The first thing that came to mind is that friends are independent of the situation and can take on an outside view. Perhaps this is where the disconnect lies with our significant others and loved ones – we have an emotional attachment which can chain us down and prevent us from lifting ourselves up overhead to take on that ‘balcony’ view of the situation where we can observe and assess the situation more logically.

Emotion is a very powerful energy and can be overwhelming during times of struggle. Think about being pulled over in the middle of the night – one officer walks up to your driver-side window and calmly explains why he pulled you over; the other officer takes the passenger-side and shines a blinding flashlight in your eyes while barking at you to exit the vehicle. That, my friends, is the difference between a logical and emotional response.

In many instances, when conversations get heated with our loved ones, we become the officer with a flashlight. Overwhelming, emotional, and counterproductive. Remember that strong emotional responses tend to trigger oppositional emotional responses in many forms, ranging from fear and withdrawal to anger and opposition. This is why it’s important to “tame the beast’ by developing emotional control, which is a skill that takes life experiences and understanding to develop.

DEVELOPING EMOTIONAL CONTROL

Understanding your own triggers and reactions is the first step towards developing emotional control. Think back to the last time you were faced with a difficult situation – the loss of a loved one, a break-up, job loss, or anything that your mind registered as a ‘traumatic’ experience. What did you need at the time?

Did you need space and time to collect your thoughts and comprehend your feelings? Does isolation put you at ease, or does it make you feel removed and lonely? Did you feel the need to be surrounded by people? What types of personalities did you surround yourself with? What sort of energies vibed well with you?

Did you care for responses from others? Do you like being guided and told what to do and how to do it when feeling lost and helpless? Did you just want somebody to listen and ask a question to help guide your thoughts rather than being told what to do and how to do it?

Did you want somebody to rile you up and ‘snap you out of it’ with strong oppositional energy or did you need somebody to be patient with you and allow you to calm down and clear your own head without adding any static and noise to the mix? Did you maybe need somebody to be there without the added pressure of feeling like that person is looking for something in return? Would you appreciate somebody who can put up with your behavior and moods when you know they’re an overreaction, but difficult to control during times of internal turmoil? I think we’ve all been through our own emotional storms and can relate to that one in one way or another.

A lot of questions were just thrown at you, I know. Take your time to cherry-pick anything that resonates with you and see if you can piece together a basic ‘needs’ list from past experiences. If you’re still struggling to understand your own needs, start with your parents or caretakers. Think about how they respond to you when you’re struggling. What do you appreciate about the response? What do you not appreciate?

LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND, NOT TO REACT

You know the old saying “treat others how you want to be treated?” This saying has withstood the test of time for good reason. Think about how you treat those closest to you. Are you fond of your own behaviors? I ask you this question because we tend to forget that having friends, family, and relationships is a necessity and luxury all in one. We tend to take for granted those who we don’t think will ever leave us and we become numb to our own actions which may be hurtful to others. Take time to analyze your own actions towards your love ones and try to identify your own triggers for acting the way you do.

It’s easy to respond automatically by pointing a finger and blaming somebody for an action or reaction. It’s almost instinctual to fire back by swinging aimlessly. It’s hard to breathe, focus, and understand somebody and their triggers for their reaction. The power of understanding is a skill in itself, and it is a skill that will yield rich and meaningful friendships and relationships if practiced regularly.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Stephen R. Covey

If you are going through relationship struggles, specifically with communication, take some time to understand the power of emotion and how to control it without manipulating it. Don’t think about emotional control as “watering down” your feelings. Instead, try looking at it as an effort to understand, organize, and compose your feelings. Visualize expressing yourself by singing a song – you can belt it out in a manner that shatters windows, scares cats, and makes ears bleed… or you can take the time to compose it into a beautiful melody. Both ways express your genuine feelings and emotions, though nine times out of ten, the latter approach is understood and responded to better than the former.

THE POWER OF EMPATHY

While on the subject of music, ever notice how top-charting musical artists still take the time to go to concerts to watch other performers? Good communication isn’t just about talking and expressing our feelings, it’s about taking in and understanding emotions and perceptions other than our own. This is a practice of empathy.

Empathy | ˈempəTHē | /noun/
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Dictionary

As we come full circle and back to the coffee shop, it becomes clear that the reason Drew and I were able to effectively communicate was because he is an empathetic person with years of experience in understanding himself and his own emotions, which allows him to help guide others. He felt my struggle and was able to step out of the spotlight and helped conduct my thoughts and feelings into an emotional orchestra.

The takeaway for me was that sometimes we talk when we should listen. It’s easier said than done in relationships and with loved ones. We all have good intentions, but those good intentions don’t always translate well to a person’s fundamental needs. For example, when somebody coughs, you give them a cough drop. When the coughing persists, do you get irritated and force more cough drops down their throat? No. It’s now time to stop subduing the symptoms and start addressing the root cause.

IN SUMMARY…

Sometimes we need to set our own feelings and needs aside so that we can help identify the root cause of somebody else’s troubles. Once we navigate to the core of the issue, that is when we can help unblock that person’s river of thought to allow communication to flow freely.

“Communication to a relationship is like oxygen to life. Without it… it dies.”

Tony Gaskins

I hope this article has provided some insight for those of you who can relate to this struggle. Though it may at times be as frustrating as untangling Christmas lights, with the right amount of patience and persistence, the knots will eventually unravel. Feel free to comment below with your own insight or any questions you may have.

Best wishes to you and your loved ones!

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