Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Say What? The Law of Communication

Let it out
Let it free
Let it all unravel
Let it out and it can be
A path on which to travel.
~Leunig, Misquoting Michael

In the first round of presidential debates between Senators McCain and Obama, the issue was raised about whether it was prudent to meet with world leaders without “preconditions,” particularly when those individuals or countries oppose us or threaten destruction of our allies.
Senator McCain insisted that any such meeting be conducted with preconditions, so as not to endorse their ugly propaganda; ridiculing Senator Obama for being naïve in his willingness to sit down with Iranian leaders without such conditions in place.
Senator Obama, on the other hand, offered the idea of tough, direct Presidential diplomacy when it came to exploring contacts with other nations, even “rouge nations” like Iran. He said, “Now, understand what this means "without preconditions." It doesn't mean that you invite them over for tea one day. What it means is that we don't do what we've been doing, which is to say, "Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won't have direct contacts with you. . . the idea is that we do not expect to solve every problem before we initiate talks." (For an exact transcript of this part of the debate, please go to
Now, my point is not to debate the politics of the day; but this issue of communicating with “preconditions” really makes me think: How often in life do we attempt to communicate with our own set of conditions?
In our personal and business relationships, do we shut people out—or refuse to talk to them altogether—when they disagree with our point of view or don’t give us what we want? Or do we approach others in the spirit of information gathering, seeking first to understand before demanding that we be understood?
How often do we refuse to discuss a particular subject with a loved one or friend because our feelings are hurt, or somehow we feel rejected by something they’ve said or done—or haven’t said or done—in effect, manipulating through emotional blackmail that says, “Until you do what I think you should do, or think like I think, or until you acknowledge that I am right, I’m not talking to you. And by the way, I’m not going to tell you why I’m mad in the first place; you should know!” Does any of this sound familiar?
Meaningful relationships aren’t borne of dictatorships. Rather, bonds are formed and strengthened through effective communication with others, which comes, in part, from our ability to understand where the other person is coming from—why they do what they do, or think what they think. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them, for agreement and understanding are two entirely different things.
True understanding comes with the free exchange of thoughts, ideas, and information—when we’re open to hearing their truth, not just our own—without limiting that exchange by imposing our conditions on the other person. When we let ourselves explore through open communication, to our delight and surprise, sometimes we just might find that one or the other or both of us have been operating under false assumptions, which have colored our perceptions and tainted our views of each other. With such discoveries come great opportunities for change, enabling us to make constructive adjustments in our relationships and move forward in the direction of peace.
To create and strengthen our relationships, solve problems and overcome challenges, it is imperative that we develop our skills as communicators--making ourselves available to each other by listening and responding with the whole heart. How can we ever hope to connect with each other if we shut down or refuse to talk? Then what chance do we have of getting what we want or bridging the gap between our hearts?
I recall trying to initiate a conversation with a person who was very angry and perhaps felt that he had been wronged, though I wasn’t sure why. My attempt to communicate with him was an effort to understand, and to put this lingering, unnamed conflict to rest. I began with a simple question: “Why are you so angry? I want to understand.”
His response was sudden and swift, shooting daggers at me with his eyes while saying, “I’m not talking to you about this.” Then he turned away, ignoring me as if I wasn’t even there. End of story. There would be no discussion. While he may have acted out of his own fear and internal discord, which I can empathize with to a degree, his behavior destroyed the last bit of trust I had in his ability to act with integrity toward me; the last bit of trust I had in the purity of his intentions.

When trust is lost we cannot feel safe to let down our guard with another and speak openly about our issues; we’re too busy protecting ourselves. Then the ego steps in, posturing and finger-pointing, looking for affirmation that we are right and they are wrong; blaming each other for our own shortcomings. In this place, we have no hope for meaningful communication. And without that, there can be no compassion, which is the cornerstone of all true human understanding.

This is but one example of the way that we impose our "pre-conditions" on others; the way that we demonstrate to them through our actions that we’re holding all of the cards: That we'll talk to them and show love and kindness to them if and only if they don’t irritate us, make us angry or say the wrong thing. We’ll talk to them when and if we’re ready, with little thought or concern for their desire for clarity or willingness to listen and understand. Then, when we do talk to them, we put our energy into defending our position, convincing them that the responsibility for all that’s wrong between us rests squarely on their shoulders. This gets us nowhere, and does little (if anything) to improve our relationships and build trust with others.

We’ve all done it at some time, in some way, to greater or lesser degrees. We may be locked in this pattern now. But, remember, without meaningful dialogue we will never get to the root of the problem; and when we can’t get to the root, we cannot possibly understand what’s motivating those we’re in conflict with, much less solve the underlying problem. Instead, the ego will continue to play out its dramas albeit on different stages, with different characters—ever-more angry and misunderstood—never reaching common ground.
True, there may be times when setting boundaries and conditions to our communication may be in order; for instance, when we need to have a crucial conversation with someone who has been emotionally or physically abusive to us. We might say, “I will talk with you only if you’re not drinking;” or “. . . if you don’t threaten me;” or “. . . after you've entered therapy.”

Being open to communication does not mean that we must put ourselves in harm's way in order to understand the other person. But beyond these basic self-protections, if we—or the other person—continually block or sabotage communication, we must ask ourselves: Do we really want to work it out? Do we really want to move toward better relations? What are we committed to--being right or getting real and creating a peaceful life?
What about you? Do you have preconditions to open communication in your life?


Rich T. said...

McCain seems like he only cares about the war and war strategies, not building alliances or looking at the truth of why we're in this mess in the first place. I know this article isn't about politics, but I have to say that McCain's theory is dangerous. Look at what happened in Korea with our silent treatment / no talk policy. They just stockpiled more weapons. Not talking didn't make them do what we wanted them to do. Great article by the way. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I'm thinking Gov. Palin's preconditions on being interviewed by the media must be something like, "they won't ask me that question." Why else would she continue to botch all these interviews. I mean, come on, who can't site a newspaper they read or a Supreme Court ruling that they disagree with?? Especially a future VP?