Listen! Conversation through the Looking Glass

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.

At an early age, we learn to speak. Shouldn’t it be a little easier to communicate with people, then? To some it seems so natural. Others never seem to get there. Why does this happen? Communication is a skill. Conflict management is a skill. As we consider what to do when it’s time to use our words we start first with our perspective.

Last time we discussed four levels of communication: the Superficial; People Places and Things; What I Value, and How Things Affect Me. One person asks a Level 4 question, the other responds with Level 2 answers. Or the listener’s nonverbal communication sends mixed signals. “Of course, I care about you!” she yells, then storms out of the room. So Step 1: identify the level of the conversation. Go deeper as necessary. Refrain from depth if the speaker will not value your vulnerability.

And when we do communicate something personal, every message we share begins interiorly, in the head or heart. It is filtered through the lens of one’s perspective and beliefs. I could have a pessimistic belief about the person (“this person is a jerk”), about people in general (“it’s practically impossible to trust anyone”), or about myself (“I’m not worth listening to”). Once passed through the lens, the message is translated to words and gestures (nonverbal communication). I may have a particular tone if I’m untrusting. I may present as unsure about my message if I doubt my ability.

Next the listener hears the message. Filtered through her perspective/belief lens, she interprets and reacts. “She is just attacking me,” or “why should I apologize?” or “this person is incompetent.” Once filtered, the message takes root in the listener’s mind. It is understood on her terms.

Being a “good listener” means awareness of your lens and the lens of the other person. It requires knowledge and thoughtfulness. First, I hold the message, listening and attending to the words in use. Before I jump to interpretation, I ask myself, “what is he really saying?” From past experiences I gain knowledge to help me better understand. “He needs to rant a little before he can calm down enough to get to the point,” or “she needs to process out loud to solve her problem.” Understanding diminishes my defensiveness. Step two: Consider what you know about your lens and the lens of the other on the given topic.

Bernard Guerney, creator of Relationship Enhancement Therapy tell us, in times of conflict, rather than focusing on what I will say next, it’s best to become the Empathizer. My sole focus is to help the Expressor (the person speaking) feel heard and understood. Impossible to do? There is so much I have wanted to say for such a long time. I’m too worked up to listen carefully. Everything he says puts me on edge.

I remind myself, if my conversational partner feels heard, he or she will be more open to what I have to say. If I’m too upset, I ask to take a break. We negotiate a good, specific time to return to the conversation. We must wait at least twenty minutes. It takes as long, if not longer for us to physically calm down from the distress.

Can’t stop feeling defensive? If I have loved and respected this person in the past, I should try to remember what it was like to feel those feelings. This is the same person, no matter what has changed. Is the conflict worth getting over? Is there some benefit to staying together? Respecting the person I’m speaking with means valuing what she feels or thinks. So I will not rush. I will listen. Step Three: Find a time when both can share and be heard.

Next week we’ll talk about what to do when you come back from that break and feel ready to fill your role as the Empathizer.

Listen! The Levels and Types of Communication

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.

Communication: when it lacks, it’s one of the most common areas of relationship problems and very effective at exacerbating whatever else the problem might be. Communication is a complicated thing.

There are four levels of communication. The first is superficial communication: when you wave to someone or casually say “hi, good to see you” at the grocery store. No information is exchanged. While superficial, it’s still important. You may wave to someone, and if he looks at you but does not wave back, he’s sent a message. Maybe something is wrong; maybe he is in a hurry. If you smile at someone and she smiles back, she’s sent a message. She’s happy to see you.

The second level is “people, places, and things.” Here we exchange information like updates on the latest Netflix drama, sports scores, neighborhood gossip, describing events. It’s not personal; it’s information. This level helps build relationships. Through it we discover common interests and compatibility. It’s classic first date talk, guiding us to know if the person is approachable. Level two tells me if this is someone with whom I can go deeper.

The next level of communication is “what I value.” Conversations about common interests evolve to conversations about that which you are passionate about. As I casually share about home improvement projects, I find the person I’m speaking with is also “diy’ing it” at her house. I begin to divulge my enthusiasm for the other projects I’m planning. We’ve hit on a something I care about. Any topic you or your conversational mate feel strongly about is part of this level. A person is less likely to share his passions if he felt the door close during level one or two. Here, the first date hits if off and the couple talk for hours. It takes vulnerability and a willingness to share what you care about. Based on the other’s responses, you discover whether or not it’s safe to go to level four.

By the stereotypes, men are most comfortable in level two, and women at level four: how things affect me. Reactions, emotional or intellectual, are the basis for the fourth level of communication. Thus, a woman may grow frustrated with her partner who reports his answer to her question. She wanted to go deeper. When an event has happened, now I know where you stand. I know how it makes you feel. It is the most vulnerable level. It is the level we should share with the least amount of people.

What separates the various modes of communication (in-person, telephone, letter, email, text and social media) is the ability to read the things we communicate unconsciously with tone of voice, eye contact, posture, face expression, and other nonverbal cues. “Is it safe?” “Is she paying attention?” “Does he care about me and what’s troubling me?” “Is something the matter?”

Leaning in, looking in the eyes, facing the person, head nodding, an open posture (arms open) all communicate, “I’m open to hearing what you have to say.” Turning away, looking around, checking one’s phone, a glazed look in the eyes, arms crossed may communicate, “What you say is not important to me.” You can take control of your non-verbal cues to communicate a chosen message. If someone you care about begins speaking at level four, pay close attention to your body language so that even when you aren’t speaking, you can still tell that person how much you care.

The first three levels often come naturally. Using words in level four can get tricky. Stay tuned and next week we’ll address this crucial skill.