When we are just getting to know someone, our conversations are usually centered on the world around us. We exchange facts and clichés, such as the following:
“How are you?”
“Fine. How are you?”
“Great. What’s new?”
“Not much. Beautiful day.”
“Sure is.” “Supposed to be 80 degrees today. It says so right here in the paper.”
“Oh, look at that.”
This conversation requires a very minimal level of connection or vulnerability—you could probably have it with an absolute stranger. Sadly, there are many people who camp out at the level of facts and clichés in their relationships. It’s comfortable and safe. They usually choose to do this because when they tried to graduate to the next level of intimacy in communication in the past, they got scared and hurt.
They ended up in those big, long, disrespectful, “relationship killer” conversations and got so burned that they decided it was safer to retreat to communication that required no vulnerability or risk whatsoever. They use communication to pursue the goal of distance and disconnection rather than connection. The only way you can build a heart-to-heart connection with someone is to communicate on a heart level about your feelings and needs. This is the level where we express vulnerability and build trust. This is the level where we get in touch with the truth about who we are and how we affect people around us Perhaps you have heard the joke about the man who goes to the doctor and complains about suffering from terrible constant gas. “But it’s the weirdest thing, doctor,” he says. “I don’t make a sound and it doesn’t smell.” The doctor looks at him and says bluntly, “Okay. Well, the first thing we are going to do is get you hearing aids. And then we are going to figure out what’s wrong with your nose.” This is what many of us experience every day when we try to communicate. There is a lot going on around us that we don’t always pick up.
Sometimes we are completely unaware of how other people are “experiencing” us. I love to tell people about how my wife experiences the way I drive up Buckhorn Mountain on my way to Weaverville, CA. This stretch of road features superb twists and turns that are perfect for weaving in and out of traffic. The risk of plummeting hundreds of feet to your death lies only a few feet away. When I’m driving, I fly around those corners, passing every car I can overtake. It is marvelous! My wife always has a completely different experience on these drives than I do—an experience I don’t understand.
I’m a good driver, as evidenced by the fact that I have never been in an accident. Personally, I think I should have been a NASCAR driver or at least signed up for a car rally. When she lets me know that she feels scared as I’m driving, I always think, Why are you scared? You have absolutely no evidence that I’m a bad driver. You should just calm down and be like me. But as mystifying as it is, I know my wife is not like me, and I cannot make her be like me. I can’t force her to feel what I feel and know what I know. I trust her to believe the best about me, so I know that when she tells me she is scared, she is not insinuating that I am trying to scare her. She is simply telling me what she feels. If I were to argue with Sheri’s feelings, I would devalue her. “You shouldn’t feel that way.
There’s no valid reason for you to feel like that. I don’t feel like that. Change and be like me.” This thought process is as ridiculous as someone saying, “I’m hungry,” and responding, “No you’re not! I’m not hungry so you can’t be hungry.” How silly is that? But that is exactly what we do when we respond to others without taking the time to understand, appreciate, and validate their feelings. When I value your feelings, I will not only make it safe for you to communicate them to me, but I will also listen and respond. I will invite you to go deeper and show me what it is you need, so we can move from understanding to decision-making and action.