The greatest threat to our civilization is a failure to communicate in an open way, combined with an unwillingness to listen to one another. (Rabbi Michael Dolgin, Temple Sinai Congregation, Toronto, in ReformJudaism.org, November 16, 2020)
The two-headed snake, failure to communicate openly, and a willful decision to refuse to listen to one another, lurks like toxic smog at the doorstep of each and every house, business, professional office, corporate boardroom, hospital operating and emergency room, and in every ecclesial sanctuary.
Why are we so concrete in our failure to communicate openly? First there is John Powell’s (S.R.) reminder that if I tell you who I am, and you reject me, that is all I have. So, we can likely agree with Powell that fear of rejection is implicit in our. We hold back open disclosure of those events, decision, statements, judgements, which lock those moments in a vault of personal secrecy. Keeping secrets, tragically, is a disease that infects and thereby affects each family, and by extension each and every institution, workplace and organization. There is neither time nor interest, in most places, to listen to those so-called personal melodramas that compound our lives, and if and when we encounter someone willing to listen, we are surprised and somewhat curious and sceptical. Private conversations with an intimate partner, perhaps, might offer space, confidentiality, trust and the chance to unlock some of those previously locked secrets.
Our memory, like an attic filled with storage boxes, suit cases and photo albums, tends to gather dust, and fade into the sepia of forgetfulness, as we attend to the duties, chores and agendas of each day. Also like that storage attic, it is rarely disturbed, only occasionally shifted, tested, and opened ever so slightly, on the occasion of an anniversary, a birth, a death, a marriage or perhaps even a search for a diploma or a baptismal or confirmation certificate. Sometimes, a single comment will strike a chord of anxiety, shame, embarrassment or even potentially of dream-like reverie, and morph into a trigger for recollecting. Lurking near the front of our consciousness, always, is a question that asks, “If I had trouble coping with that moment when it occurred, will I be able to withstand its impact if it is revisited?” And then, “If I revisit a tragic and painful moment, and I even consider whether to share it, with whom will that sharing be feasible?” “Will that person be OK with me, upon learning of my ‘bad’? Will that person keep the story confidential? And What would happen if the answer is “no”?
We have all had moments of truth-telling that went awry. And there was another layer of angst as our story served as an act of self-betrayal. What we often fail to bring forward into our thought process is that each other person has his/her own story locked securely in another safe-deposit box of memory. Conversely, I recently revisited a moment some three decades ago, through social media, in order to extend a heartfelt apology for having made utterly unacceptable comments to a supervisor in a learning session, at a time when my thoughts and emotions were running high and highly conflicted. To my grateful surprise, I received an authentic apology from that person, for his failure in offering support when, on reflection, he now deemed my need for support could have replaced his attempt to challenge. The exchange prompts a reasonable inquiry: Are more people trapped in a fear of sidisclosure that are open to the potential healing through honest apology?
Another aspect of failure to communicate hovers like a vulture over domestic/marital relationships. Pride and a determination to perform duties, both those expressed as expected by a partner and those implicit inside one of the on partners, having been deeply learned and embedded from his/her family of origin, dig trench ‘boundaries’ that lock in feelings of tension that can and will only fester without release. Those trenches, once established, have a tendency to make themselves ‘permanent’ if only through an unchallenged habit. Separated both from our connection to our underlying reasons and perceptions for doing or not doing specific things, or from saying those things we anticipate could be unsettling, we perform a security-check on ourselves that can later be summarized in words like these: “I feared rejection if I disclosed who I was and what I thought and believed, and ironically I was rejected for not showing up!”
If it is anecdotally and experientially true that ‘showing up’ comprises most of what human existence entails, and we presumably are all cognitively conscious of the veracity of that epithet, then why is it so difficult to show up? There is an ironic twist of emotional power politics in this dynamic for which those of us who tend to be dubbed “gushers” for the obvious reason that we are far more ebullient, effervescent and perhaps even dominating need to be and to become much more conscious. We all know about physical and emotional space, especially in this time of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. What we do not speak of as often is what I might call, verbal space, referring to the time some of us take to express our thoughts and feelings, while inevitably and thoughtlessly depriving another of a similar and equal opportunity. If we fill the air, and the time together with our ‘emoting’ we are at the same time robbing the other of a legitimate opportunity to share his/her thoughts and feelings.
It is the discernment of appropriate ‘showing up’ both from the perspective of being too withdrawn as well as from the perspective of being too overwhelming that much of our repression can be traced. Repression, analogous to keeping secrets, although not necessarily the same, can occur without anyone actually taking conscious note of its happening. On the one hand, a rather shy person begins any encounter with unfamiliar people as an observer, keeping distance, keeping silence and gathering the ethos of the situation, in order to ascertain the mood, the tenor, the tone and the feelings of comfort or discomfort in the situation. Conversely, another person rushes into a conversation with new faces, seemingly ignorant of if and how his/her person is charging like the proverbial ‘bull in a china-shop’ into the room. Insecurity underlies both types of response to a new situation; however, how each person responds to insecurity withheld or exaggerated will have an impact on many of the responses.
In court rooms, and in diplomatic negotiations, terseness is considered professional. Discretion, in terms of protecting information, and of delivering information in manner strategically designed to influence the ‘court’ or the ‘other party’ includes a detached, unemotional and professional “friendship” encapsulated in the legal profession in the words attached to the opposing legal team, “my friend”. Rules of engagement, developed over centuries and codified in transcripts (now dubbed read-outs) guide participants in the ‘normal’ manner of professional discourse or more appropriately debate.
The world of the reporter, on the other hand, while fixed on the prize of a newsworthy quote, the accuracy of which determined by the absence of any denial or reprisal is guaranteed, nevertheless permits the contextualizing atmospherics, both in background, and in tone, and in what might be expected to ensue. Whether the ‘source’ is disclosing the whole story, or a tightly guarded miniscule crumb, poses interminable digging obligations and opportunities for the reporter. Public figures, stereotypically, have arrived in their current position through exuberant, enthusiastic and ebullient expression, often filling the air and heads of their audiences with entertaining decorative presentations of their own exemplary qualities and promises. Increasingly, ordinary people are grabbing microphones in order to pose serious and often troubling questions of those figures. And consequently, some public figures are shying away from town hall formats.
On the listening side of this equation, too, there are those whose strength and success have come from paying attention to those persons including parents, teachers, coaches, and supervisors in part-time jobs, whose mentorship they have valued, and from which they have benefitted. And then there are many more who have blocked the impact of many of the mentoring caveats, believing their own attitudes and values trumped those of their mentors. There may have been persistent experiences of debasement when persons positioned as coaches used their position to abuse, even if their motive was to challenge and to test their charges. Power, whether in the form of a quiet, private, confidential suggestion, or in the form of a public display of embarrassing demeaning, nevertheless lands in the moment it is delivered, without the coach usually taking time and care to assess the long-term impact of his/her actions and words. I deeply regret my own carelessness in not being as sensitive to the impact of my coaching volume and intensity, and my failure to consider options before losing it and embarrassing a player who could have benefited from a more humane approach.
Another cliché about listening is that it is very difficult, in fact impossible to listen while engaged in a cataract of words gushing from one’s mouth. As a long-term teacher, I bear both guilt and responsibility for having heard most of the cognitive connotations of oral responses from students, without actually having integrated the emotional connotations of those responses. My own directed intensity to ensure that the experience of the classroom never devolved into what the student would have considered boring may have been a factor in my negligence. Nevertheless, active listening, a process through which one individual hears the cognitive and the emotional and the psychic messages from another, and processes the complexities of those various layers of communication, is a process few are taught and fewer are willing to take the time and the care to consider. Naturally, those in the therapeutic professions are both trained, and hopefully adept, at the highly nuanced skill. And, occasionally, they may even have moved beyond the skill to integrating the process into their “presence” a sine qua non of the needed process of growing trust between client and therapist.
Among families, there is a deep divide between men and women, the former paying diligent attention to the factual literal meanings of whatever communication is coming from his partner. Women, on the other hand, seem to have an innate capacity, and comfort in, hearing multiple levels of meaning in the communication in which they are engaged. This is not to disqualify men, or to put women on a pedestal; it is rather to attempt to level the playing field, in the hope that women will pause to indulge our bluntness and unnuanced receipt of their messages, and to encourage men to experiment with a way of hearing that carries many of the overtones of feeling, and implication to which we previously turned a deaf ear and a blind eye and a blank mind.
The less we actually “hear” the more frustrated will our partners be; the more we disdain any notion of opening our ears and our hearts to intimate family communication, the more we will deprive ourselves and others of the potential of being fully ‘understood’ and fully ‘known’. If we can begin to clear some of the stereotypes of those identity traps that keep us wandering through our trenches, and start exploring new pathways both to disclose and to listen, while it will be frightening at first, the possibility does exist that we will become known to those who matter and they will also become known to us in ways previously out of reach.
Deception, like obfuscation, dissembling and distraction, is a defence from which we can free ourselves, if we no longer need it as part of our mask. And regardless of the professional requirements of communication etiquette and ethics, perhaps we can begin to replace its prominence with confidence and disclosure even in our diplomatic ventures.