It begins very early, perhaps with the first spark of life; relationship, connection, a drive to resonate with life and especially with forms just like us. We call it family, bonding, attachment. But we get so confused, all that chattering in our head and the obsession that others must hear those voices too. We want to be seen, felt, understood and appreciated. So we tell them, all the time.
That is one side of the communion dynamic, sharing who we are this moment. The other side is observing and listening. One side has a need to be known and the other has a need to know. These two sides of the communication coin are very different.
Of course, we know what it feels like to want to be seen, appreciate and understood. As a baby we look up and smile, hoping that others will smile too. We scribble paint on a slip of paper, hold it up, and say ‘look.’ Most adulterated adults – I call them dults – look at the paper and begin their predictable rant; ‘Oh, isn’t that nice. Look at how big the sky is.’ ‘Is that the sky?’ ‘People don’t have three heads.’ Inside the child sits whispering to him or herself, ‘No Mommy. Look at me. Look at what I did.’
The child isn’t interested in the dumb piece of paper. They want to share how they have been changed by this exciting, creative moment, so others will see and appreciate who they really are – right now, which may be different the next moment. The child needs to share the meaning of their life as we all do. Without saying one word the dult could simply look deeply at the child with complete attention, care, respect and abiding affection, reach down and give the little darling a hug filling the child with what they really need most of all: renewed and updated connection, shared meaning.
Sharing meaning involves two very different processes, inviting-sharing and observing-listening. The child was expressing the inviting-sharing or revealing step. The dult was, that moment, holding the observing-listening role. They can and do change – on the instant, but both can’t take the same position at the same time without sparks flying.
The purpose of communication changes with the role we are playing each moment. For the observer-listener the purpose of communication is simply to understand the other – as they are – that moment. That’s all. Why a person feels what they are feeling, should they, should the other agree and feel the same, anything other than simply seeing, feeling and understanding who the other is in the moment – is irrelevant, confusing and represents a dangerous form of miscommunication.
The moment the listener projects any of his or her feelings and needs, anything other than complete, empathic, compassionate listening (when that is their position in the communication process) changes the dynamic. At that moment their feelings and needs – who they are take center stage, which is a form of emotional thievery (unless asked for feedback by the one seeking to be understood).
This projection of the listener’s feelings and needs supersedes the original need to be seen – which was why the conversation was initiated in the first place – ending in confusion and frustration, at least for the one seeking to be understood. What began as one person’s need to be seen and understood is turned. Now the other’s needs take precedent – without having satisfied the original need. This, I’m afraid, happens quite often with children and with dults.
It is like a child saying ‘Mommy look at the doggie, look at the doggie. Mommy look at the doggie. Mommy do you see the doggie…!’ What they are really saying is see how excited I am seeing the doggie. Until she, with complete attention, listens and responds – the child’s excitement, who he or she is that moment, is not seen, felt, understood or shared. Having a deep need to be seen and understood (shared meaning = bonding) compels the child to keep tugging at the apron strings. Rather, the mother being occupied with her needs, gets annoyed by the child’s repetition and finally says, ‘yes, damn it. I see the ddu#fk dog. Now shut up.’ I see it every day.
1 - She failed to communicate directly that she sees the other for who they are that moment (empathy).
2 – When she did respond her needs replaced the child’s, and
3. The other, in this case the child, was left unseen, not understood, confused and frustrated. When this pattern becomes the norm the relationship reflects lack of trust, respect and frustration – rather than shared meaning with its implicit care and renewed respect. This, I believe, is the tragic norm because most of us don’t know how to just listen, including me.
Remember, there are two sides in the communication dynamic; to be known and to know. One side invites, shares, reveals and the other side observes and just listens. Be mindful and aware of which role you are holding and don’t, for heaven’s sake, cheat by stealing the other’s need to be understood and appreciated by placing your needs center stage. Shut up and be present. Your turn will come soon.