How do we talk to each other? How do we explain ourselves respectfully to someone who has different views?
There’s my work, where I’m figuring out how scientists can talk to “normal people,” and how scientists and clinicians can talk to each other. Specifically, my project is devoted to explaining biorepositories—biotrusts, as we’re calling them—along with a whole snarl of not-so-simple science ideas. We want to be clear, to be specific, to be honest and accurate and open without dumbing anything down. That’s the challenge of simplification.
There’s politics—I belong to a science writing association where we recently started wondering how we cut across political lines to understand one another when we tell stories, scientific ones or otherwise. I volunteered the notion that we have to know each other—we have to shelve politics or other divisive topics enough to actually become friends who spend time together and trust one another while wading through some murky territory.
I’m in a good position to know about it, since my beliefs are often politically different than my family’s, and yet we’ve managed to surmount many of the obstacles to loving one another. We refrain from flinging stuffing at each other every Thanksgiving. But then my father sent me a piece of writing I considered startling, even abrasive in its political stance, and I started wondering how my father and I could grope toward understanding when our views cut such a deep trench between us.
There’s my personal life, characterized at the moment by some wonderfully strong, agile friendships, and some strangely brittle, stumbling interactions with would-be friends. The romantic talks, especially, trip me up. So much easier to walk away than look people in the eye and tell them what I want.
I mean to probe these sorts of communication challenges on Mondays. What works, and why? What pitfalls snare our tongues and scramble our understanding? How can I (we?) improve? I don’t know, but chime in, since, probably, you know better than I!
Starting with Myself
I’d like my communication to be different. If I can improve the way I talk to others and help them feel understood (and help them understand me as well), than pretty much anyone else can, too. I belong to a personality type (INTJ) notoriously “logical,” “precise,” and unlikely to run things based on emotion only. Someone once told me I was the emotional equivalent of Spock (of course I thought it was a compliment). But I also work on a crisis line, and have also been told I’m exceptionally understanding, so I can’t be all emotional awkwardness (I hope).
Certain people I just try to ignore sometimes, and one of these people is me. I’m frustrated that when I look down, I’m always in the same skin and the same brain. So boring, I think, and I realize I’ve gotten so proficient at boring myself, I’m quick to assume I’m boring other people, too.
I want to talk about ideas, about big, multifaceted problems, about shades of gray. Not about me, please. Which means I do a lot of listening. I listen to everything under the sun and moon on a crisis line; I listen when friends need ears, and when random people in coffee shops seem lonely. I listen because I know I’ll hear incredible things.
I also listen because it’s easy, because it takes away the pressure of putting myself forward, because it seems like the right thing to do.
In fact, before I’m willing to talk about myself, I need people to ask me questions, to prove they’re interested, to commit, in some sense, to untangling me, and I think it’s a conceit of mine that I don’t want to untangle too easily.
Instead, I shut my mouth, lean forward, and open my eyes.
Except, I don’t always listen to myself. And when you stop listening to yourself, you’re even less equipped to tell others what matters to you and what you want. I’ve never felt I’ve lost my own thoughts or opinions, but I have lost a reliable connection to my own feelings, and so, I don’t always know what I want. And I’ve fallen out of practice at explaining what I want explicitly and consistently, which means I’ve rendered myself somewhat dumb. Too much of a blank slate or a mirror for others, perhaps. And if this goes too far, I’ll risk taking away my own humanity, and I’m going to get treated as a less interesting person, and one who doesn’t matter as much.
And yeah, I don’t want that to happen to me anymore.
Sometimes I practice NVC.
I try to keep these points in mind.
Mostly, I just want to take time to check in with myself. Then I want to choose words carefully, and spit them out. I want my actions to match my words, and I don't want to send mixed messages. Starting now.