Ouch! That Hurt!

Communication can be rife with misunderstanding and hurt feelings!
Communication can be rife with misunderstanding and hurt feelings!

It amazes me sometimes the things that are said and done by people, supposedly for the help and benefit of others, but which are frankly rude, hurtful and/or damaging. I have recently been a witness to a very unpleasant exchange that has arisen between two “friends” and it is a stark reminder that intentions, motivations, values and perspectives can be very different and play a powerful role in our communications with others. In an exchange of emails one of the participants sought to take a rational path, clarifying perspective by stating their intentions, explaining their motivations, and seeking open dialogue to work through any misunderstanding. Everything was written from an “I feel…” or “My intention was…” perspective. The response was condemning and written as “It is obvious you felt…”, “I know your intentions were…” and fascinatingly accused the first person of being aggressive. I was involved as a coach to the first person, in this instance not to help the relationship but to work through the issues and achieve some positive personal outcome for the hurting individual.

Communications with others is full of opportunity for misunderstanding. In entering a dialogue with others we bring a wealth of personal experience, cultural and personal values, aspirations and intentions, and personality styles. We may be quiet and aloof, bold and brash, warm and welcoming, or any number of other possibilities. And then there is how we view the other and what they have to offer a given situation. Even on a good day, when we put real thought and effort into what we are communicating, and in thinking through how best to present our message, there are misfires, and there can be major breakdowns and misunderstandings. If we fire off messages in an emotional frenzy the likelihood of a positive outcome is LOW.

Relevant to the example I introduced, some principles in communicating that can help create a positive outcome are:

Choose the appropriate medium for your communication. Is it appropriate? Will it maximise your chances of sending a clear, unconfused message that will be understood by the recipients. Do not fall into the trap of believing that sending a clear message means it will be understood. Breakdowns in communication can and do occur with the sender and/or the receiver at any given time.

When communicating the message we send is conveyed 55% non-verbally (i.e. through body language), 38% vocally (e.g. our tone and where we place emphasis) and 7% through the words we use. How many of us resort to using email as our primary means for communicating? We have already reduced our bandwidth for information to 7% of what is possible, assuming we send the perfect message. If you consider the TXTing mentality that is now so prevalent, with its encrypted messages, short forms that are not equally understood, and lack of punctuation, the ability to communicate can only be reduced further still.

If what you need to convey is important or there are sensitive issues or emotional issues around the content, carefully consider a face-to-face meeting which maximises the possibility for understanding, or a phone call that at least maintains verbal content as well as the words.

We live in an information age AND we are really appalling communicators. Don’t let technology lull you into a false sense of comfort about the message you are sending or that the recipients are receiving. What you send as a message IS NOT necessarily what they receive!

Neutralise Emotion – internally and expressed. When hurt or angry, walk away and wait a day to respond, if possible (not so easy in a face-to-face situation, but still may be a valid option). As a minimum, take a deep breath, find your own centre of balance and consciously choose the outcome you want from a message you are sending before speaking or writing.

Own your own feelings and express them as “I feel…” There is no condemnation of the other person if you own your feelings and express them as yours. Of course if you state they made you feel something you are hitting a difficulty. Remember: no one else can make you feel anything. You choose your feelings. The choosing may not be obvious but it is true. For example, someone hits you. How do you feel? It depends. If the person is or has a history of aggression towards you, says “I hate you” and punches you in the face the result may be anger. If a person is thrashing around on the floor in an epileptic fit and in the throes of their fit their fist hits you in the face, you may feel startled, possibly some compassion, but are less likely to feel angry. Circumstance, perspective and values contribute to the feelings you experience. They are your feelings. No one else made you feel them. Something happened. You interpreted the situation. A signal was generated from your brain and a feeling experienced. By owning your feelings you have a choice of changing them and of harnessing them to enhance your personal power.

Assign your own importance to feedback received. Most of us want others to be happy with us. We learn from the moment we are born that if we please others we are more likely to get what we want, or at least have a better experience of life. When we learn that someone is displeased with us the reaction can be pronounced as we struggle with our apparent failing. From this perspective we place a high value on negative feedback, and often overlook and quickly dismiss the positive.

An important phase of personal growth is when we shift our measures of success as a person internally and base it on our intentions, our motivations, the values we hold and outcomes we sought, and less on what others say to and about us, negative or positive. With a solid internal touchstone, we can receive external assessments of who we are, how we are viewed and judged, and compare them against our own assessment. Consider there may be truth in anything we receive, but not necessarily, and do not accept negative (or even positive) feedback simply because it has been given.

Feedback can be provided for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • to offer constructive critique
  • to create motivation to change
  • to unsettle and create opportunity for a victory
  • to be spiteful and deliberately hurtful.

Just because feedback has been given by someone does not mean you have to receive it. Positive feedback from someone greasing your palms because they want something is of less value than honest negative feedback from any source. When we are still caught in the need for external approval we like to be surrounded by those who shower us with adoration and struggle when negative comments are made. We may feel devastated when false accusations or assaults on our character are made. As we internalise the touchstone for personal assessment, and we base approval on our values etc, feedback from others becomes information to receive, consider, discard or keep and use as appropriate. I have learned that my integrity does not always need defending. I used to vociferously defend any accusation made against me, felt terrible that someone could consider I was “bad”, and then one day an acquaintance said, “Why do you need to defend your integrity?” Wow! That took me back. I realised that I did out of a feeling of inadequacy and lack of self-esteem. Sometimes integrity does need defending. That is what positive use of anger is all about, but sometimes it is enough to know I am integral and in knowing that the other person has no power over me in that instance.

Next time you receive a message, verbal, written or TXTed that inflames you:

  • Consider what result you want from your response
  • Neutralise your emotion in forming and sending the response
  • Consciously determine the merits and significance of any personal feedback received. Keep the worthwhile and discard the dross.

In all circumstances, consider meeting face-to-face or at least picking up a phone rather than relying only on such ineffective communications media as email or TXTing.

May all your communications be fog free! These are some ways of creating and maintaining clarity in communications with the people you interact with.

What is Your Social Footprint?

Footprint in the sand
What is your social footprint?

Yesterday while enjoying coffee by a beach, my wife and I watched an enjoyable series of related social interactions. A grandfather and two young granddaughters (or so they appeared to me as an outsider) parked their car and got out. Half the car was blocking an entrance to a parking garage, well over the painted yellow writing “NO PARKING”. The grandfather took no notice of this, getting the girls, no older than 5 or 6, out of the car. As he continued preparing for their day at the beach they started to quiz him about where the car was parked. One even paced out the portion of the car that was in the NO PARKING area and challenged him about it. He finally took on board what they were saying and bundled them back into the backseat of the car, belted them in, and got in the car himself. Just as he was starting his engine, a car across the road in a legitimate car parking space started up and pulled out. Granddad reversed his car back to exit his space when another car came along, indicating it would take the newly vacated park. Granddad had not even indicated he was moving, let alone that he wanted that space, but he put his hands together, as if pleading with the man who had just arrived to take the space. With a smile directed at Granddad the man granted granddad the space and carried on. Granddad and the girls parked in the legitimate spot and then went off happily to play on the beach. Any number of those events could have played out differently. A few examples:

  • Granddad leaves his car in the original, bad parking position and someone is blocked that needs to exit or enter the parking building. Granddad gets towed and possibly fined. Unhappy outcome.
  • Granddad could have argued with the granddaughters that they should respect their elders, ignored them, rather than giving them an experience of their own legitimacy, and the beach could have been a less than happy experience. The girls clearly liked their granddad. It was great that they could reason with him and have him take on board what they clearly identified as a problem. Granddad added a lot of value to his granddaughter’s self-concept.
  • The man in the car, with legitimate right to claim the car space, could have. That would be a neutral result for him, parking and knowing he was justified, but instead he made someone else’s day. He added a lot of value in that moment to granddad and the girls with some inconvenience to himself.

Counter that with a story my wife then told me, having watched this episode, of how she was waiting to turn into a car parking space a few days ago, paused and indicating to allow the exiting car the time and space it needed to reverse out. Once the car was out and before she could move in, a man sped into the space, stealing it from her. From an ego perspective he may feel he won the space, battled for or stole it, perhaps feeling smug with himself. It reminds me of a quote from Nelson Mandela: “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” While not in the same league as the experiences of Nelson Mandela, stealing a car space is to be aggressive, to invade another’s space, to rob them of what is theirs, to withhold one’s own compassion, and to diminish humanity in that moment.

In every moment where we interact with another human being we leave our social footprint. Does yours add value, or does it leave a polluted mark on this planet. There is enormous concern and attention placed on ecological footprints, and we often hear that as individuals we cannot make a difference. It’s a global problem. The social footprint you leave is entirely up to you and the choices you make and the actions you take in the moment with another being. Do you pollute or improve this planet by being here? Do you recognise the impact you have on others? Do you choose to improve the experience of those around you? Are you so focused on yourself and what you want that you fail to miss precious moments of value adding opportunity with another being? If we were to check your social ledger, would your social footprint show you as reducing the net value of social interactions or of positively contributing? Do you experience compassion towards others or do you remain isolated and attentive to your own world alone? Each moment with another is an opportunity to, through even the smallest of choices, make a positive contribution to your life’s social footprint.

Celebrating Relationship

Couple in relationship
Being in relationship

Being in deep relationship with others trumps any other approach to learning about ourselves. We may take a journey into ourselves through solitude, meditation, and a myriad other ways to get better acquainted with ourselves, and raise our consciousness and awareness of what makes us tick. At times we may need space and time to disentangle from the complexities and crossed messages that play out when in relationship with others. However nothing beats relationship for creating an environment that enables growth.

I have enjoyed solitude, going on silent retreats and developing awareness of my inner world. None of that comes close to the pressure cooker of being in relationship with another human being and learning while in process. I manage that in small doses, then claim some space for myself before reengaging.

Also, I am not suggesting all relationships are positive. Some are diabolical, or at least damaging, and that we allow them to persist suggests lessons of self-worth and of ending abuse we have yet to learn.

As a young person I felt awkward and uncomfortable with myself, and even more so with and around others. Key messages from my internal critic were that I was inadequate and unworthy, and no one would want to know me. No wonder I felt awkward. Those messages still play though with less intensity. They interfere with engaging smoothly and easily. I watch others who seem to flitter easily into and out of connection with others, and sometimes I feel jealous. I wish it was that easy for me.

However, I have learnt how to be with others, some others, in a deep, intimate and very real way. This includes recognising that:

  • a relationship comprises three primary entities: them, me and the in between.
  • deepening a relationship requires me to share something of myself. As I am more vulnerable and trusting I invite the other to join me. What they do then is their choice.
  • as a relationship deepens feelings are unleashed from within as past experiences (often unconsciously) manifest as current behaviour. Recognising those feelings are not about this person but are about past wounds can assist the relationship building process, especially if I don’t make the person with me the dumping ground for my past hurts. Staying with those feelings and allowing myself to be seen and held in and through those moments is healing. Dumping them on the other person is damaging for them and the relationship.
  • being with the other person as they struggle in their own experience is a privilege so long as they are not dumping their past on me, making me the target of their pain.
  • Empathy, forgiveness and love are crucial ingredients for moving through hurt between me and the other person.
  • in addition to the three primary entities, a relationship includes all those who have been part of both our lives. Their voices, their shaping of our beliefs, attitudes and perceptions, and how they may have hurt us may manifest in our minds or be reflected in the other person at any moment.
  • Not all relationships are equal. Some people will not respect or positively respond to my vulnerability or genuine attempts at being in relationship. Choosing wisely about when and where and with whom to share myself is important.
  • Being in relationship is a dance. It is not a linear process, going deeper, deeper, and deeper still. Instead, it is learning how to engage with this person in front of me, different from all others. Which steps do we share and that enable us to flow together? Which steps do we struggle with and how do we develop in them? What causes us to step on each other’s toes or to trip and fall? How do we pick ourselves up and start again? When is it appropriate to let go and move away? When do we choose to return and reconnect?

These things I have learned are about being in relationship with anyone, not just an intimate partner. The degree of intimacy (“in to me see”) and engagement can be contextual, but often it is choice.

Being in relationships is not an easy exercise. It can be deeply rewarding. At the end of the day success is, in my mind, defined by how I have engaged with others, and what I have learnt about being more fully and authentically with others. In the process I will have seen aspects of myself previously unconscious, and encountered challenges that require me to dig deep and develop new capacities. By being in meaningful relationship with others we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves more deeply and intensely than any other way I know.

What have you learned about being in relationship with others? What gold have you gleaned from your experiences?