Your head is an intricate radio station.
Think of your ears as a pair of sophisticated antennas and your mouth as a transmitter. When engaged, they exchange signals with the world around you. They were specially designed to receive and send messages to and from other people.
At the root of almost every conflict between human beings is a fault in communication. Surely, this will not be the first time you hear that effective communication is at the root of every healthy relationship. After all, our language is intrinsically tied to the way we understand the world, our intelligence and our ability to relate to one another.
Hearing is the first sense that develops in a growing human fetus. From within the womb, we begin absorbing and processing the intricate patterns of sound that make up the world around us.
We are taught to use our voices (for most of us that means that we are taught to speak, read and write) as we grow up, first at home and then throughout school; We never cease to learn new language in the form of new words, ideas, idioms, and slangs tied to life events that are birthed with every sunrise. The use of language is our main tool to learn about the world and to share our inner world with those with whom we share it.
Interestingly enough, our education systems, influenced by our societal values, have prioritized teaching some dimensions of communication over others. It seems that education about the use of language to meet our own and others’ emotional needs is very limited and it is rarely found in curricula of school aged children. We spend thousands and thousands of hours in school learning the ins and outs of language and its function in the sciences, arts and the day to day “business as usual” transactions, but we rarely discuss how to properly communicate in a conflict situation with authority figures, friends, family and/or community members.
Do you remember learning how to communicate with someone who is having an emotional crisis? Why should this be the job of professionals only?
After all, we are all bound to come across many situations in which we can make a positive difference if we just learn to use our emotionally attuned communication skills. What's more, learning how to communicate through emotionally challenging situations and conflict will improve your relationships significantly.
Many clients who come through my office wish to improve their communication with someone important in their life. May it be their significant other, boss, parent or roommate, often, the problem is that the two people involved in the conflict are not on the same wave length of communication. Their radios aren’t tuned to receive each other’s information.
This goes beyond the issue of mere comprehension of language. It actually has more to do with the function of language that each of them is using differs.
In his book “Changing Anger”, psychologists Zak Schwartz and Lois McClellan describe 4 types of communication.
The first function is information sharing and validation seeking. In this type of communication one person wants to share their thoughts and emotions with another for the sole purpose of externalizing them with someone. The role of the receiver is to listen, reflect and validate. The goal of this type of communication is to connect and attempt to understand what the other person is going through.
An example of this is when someone after a long day of stressful work just wants to vent to an empathetic ear.
The second function is problem solving and help/advice seeking. In this type of exchange, one person is intentionally seeking advice or help with problem solving from another. Normally the goal of this type of communication is for the transmitter to gain cooperation or information from the receiver.
An example of this is when someone asks somebody else for help figuring out how best to sell their car.
The third function is negotiation. A negotiation can only take place if there is a common interest to procure a good or a goal between the two parties. The goal of a healthy negotiation is for both parties to win even if there has to be some degree of compromise from each other.
An example of this is when two parents negotiate the school placement of their children, or when two people are trying to decide what the next vacation destination will be, etc.
The fourth function is boundary setting.
The purpose of this type of communication is for the transmitter to delineate a boundary to the receiver, with a clear repercussion if crossed. It is essential that for this type of communication to work, that a repercussion is administered.
An example of this is when a person lets a friend know that they will take a cab home if their friend has another drink. If indeed their friend has another drink and the person therefore goes home in a cab, the boundary has successfully been set.
If you have problems communicating with someone who you hold dear, evaluate the function of communication you are using. Are you both on the same frequency? Is the right communication function being used?
Most relationships with communication problems follow a common pattern: one person seeks validation and wishes to just be listened while the other one jumps into problem solving mode right away. This leaves the transmitter feeling unheard and often frustrated. Sounds familiar?
For transmitters: let the person know what is it that you need from them and save yourself some trouble. (E.x. “I’m not really looking for a solution to the problem right now, I just want to feel understood and heard”).
For receivers: if you are confused about what function of communication you should use, ask!
(Ex. “I notice you are upset by this, would you like me to just listen or are you actually looking for ideas to solve this problem”).
On my next blog I’ll elaborate more on examples and the actual application of this knowledge. Stay tuned. I’m the meantime enjoy this amazing quote from the movie “waking life” which captures beautifully the mesmerizing and existential nature of language:
“Creation seems to come out of imperfection. It seems to come out of a striving and a frustration. And this is where I think language came from. I mean, it came from our desire to transcend our isolation and have some sort of connection with one another. And it had to be easy when it was just simple survival like, you know, “water.” We came up with a sound for that. Or “saber-toothed tiger right behind you.” We came up with a sound for that. But when it gets really interesting, I think is when we use that same system of symbols to communicate all the abstract and intangible things that we’re experiencing. What is, like frustration? Or what is anger? Or love? When I say “love,” the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person’s ear, travels through this byzantine conduit in their brain through their memories of love or lack of love and they register what I’m saying and say yes, they understand. But how do I know they understand? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead, you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed. It’s unspeakable. And yet, you know, when we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.”