Communication is a two way affair. Someone speaks and someone listens. That sounds quite simple, yes? It can be, but it’s not simple when the communication gets overlaid with projections, preconceptions and assumptions.
If we assume that someone is against us somehow, we tend to see whatever that person says as negative. Our projection that they are ‘against us’ or against our ideas can mean that that person’s communication is not received as it is intended. We can read negativity where there is none.
In the same way, if we see someone as our friend, we are likely to minimise any negativity that may be in their communication. Later they may say, “Sorry I was a bit terse yesterday.” And you say, “I didn’t find you terse, just direct and clear.” Because that was your experience.
Certainly seeing everyone as your friend is likely to lead to less stressful communications because you’ll likely be seeing the best in their words rather than the worst.
Other kinds of assumptions are that because someone belongs to a certain group or type of person, we assume they will think exactly as do others in that group. Or we may have assumptions about the group beliefs that colour our ability to actually hear what they are saying.
The human tendency to dualistic thinking causes problems in the ‘for’ or ‘against’ assumptions as well. If someone says something that we perceive as negative about us or our friend, we immediately assume that the person is ‘against us’ or against our friend, even though the person may also be quite aware of, and happy to extol, our virtues or the virtues of our friend. We stick them in the ‘for’ or ‘against’ basket and where we place them then colours how we hear their communication. Since thinking this way doesn’t allow someone to be in both baskets, to hear clearly we must throw out both baskets and just listen.
Projections are when we project our own issues, tendencies or experiences onto someone else or onto a situation. So if we had issues with our autocratic father, for example, when we’re talking to someone who appears rather autocratic in their approach, we may react to them in the same way as we reacted to our father. We can protect motivations and feelings onto the whole situation and easily find ourselves reacting to someone in a way that is not appropriate for the actual situation. Emotionally we may be playing out our frustration with our father. We may think that the person is trying to control us, when that may not be the case at all. We may simply be reacting to their manner, rather than hearing their intended meaning.
Projection can make us assume that a person is reacting to the situation they are in in the way that we ourselves would react in that situation. But they may not be reacting the way we would at all. It can be very difficult for people to see that.
Preconceptions are formed from our previous experiences with a person or a kind of situation. We assume that a person will be the same now as they were last time we spoke with them. We have a preconception of that person as being a certain way or having a certain attitude, such that we may not hear words that would, were we not operating with a preconception, make us see the person or situation in a different light.
Preconceptions conveniently forget that things change moment to moment, so what was is no longer so. The person we spoke to yesterday is not the same one we are speaking to today, even though they look the same, their mind can change in an instant.
What are we actually saying?
Then, even if we have no assumptions about the person, we can make assumptions about the meaning of their words or the intention behind them, thus further confusing the communication. Sometimes I ask myself, what is the intention behind these words? Is it what is coming across to me, or is it something else? You’d think that answer would be simple, but no, because to complicate matters even further sometimes those who are speaking are not aware of what they are actually saying.
Now that sounds weird, doesn’t it? How can we not be aware of what we’re saying? Have you ever asked someone what they are trying to say? Or why they are saying it? We need to do that sometimes because sometimes words carry a hidden meaning that can even be hidden from the person speaking. Sometimes they are not aware of what they are actually communicating.
We see this when someone uses highly intellectual language to prove some point, but hidden within this language is the suggestion that the person being communicated to is somehow inferior than the person speaking. Whether the listener sees this kind of hidden meaning depends on the listener, as does whether or not they react to it. In such instances I feel it is good to question the person speaking to clarify what their meaning is, not just for myself, but for them as well. They may be somewhat mollified when they realise that they do in fact have the hidden agenda of trying to make someone feel small, or trying to defend a particular person or situation.
Of course if the listener is someone who is sensitive to being belittled or to hearing a particular person or situation defended, they may project such a meaning onto the words when it isn’t there. So in order to clarify, we might ask:
‘It sounds to me as if you are suggesting …
‘Why are you saying this?
‘Are you suggesting …
So how do we communicate most clearly?
We must speak and hear without projections, assumptions and preconceptions. Of course, that is easier said than done. Meditation gives us the skills to be able to this. In meditation we practise letting whatever rises in our mind, rise and pass through without holding onto it, because it’s when we hold onto our thoughts and emotions that they colour our perception. Just becoming aware of our projections, assumptions and preconceptions loosens their grip on us.
So when you’re in a situation where there is conflict or a high potential for miscommunication check out what assumptions you have about the person and what projections and preconceptions you might be laying on them, and make a conscious effort to put them aside and actually listen to what is being said. If you’re not sure if you’re hearing their intended meaning, then ask: “Are you saying …” or “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say here?” or “I’m not sure if I understand you correctly” and so on.
Don’t assume that what you heard is what they were trying to say.
In the moment, I find taking a deep breath in and breathing out slowly before communicating with someone difficult always helps me. On the outbreath I expel any negative feelings, assumptions and preconceptions I might have for that person and I think of them as a friend. Then I try to simply listen, just as I would if I were meditating on sound. When I manage to actually do that, it works very well. Trouble is, it’s easy to forget that simple breath.
But the bottom line is …
You need to want to hear what the person talking to you is actually saying. If you aren’t interested, or simply don’t want to know, there can be no communication. There is also no point talking to someone who does not want to hear what you have to say. No matter how much you think they need to hear it, if they don’t want to hear it, they will not hear it, no matter how many times you say it. Sometimes it’s better to back off. If it is truly something vital for them to hear, then perhaps they will be able to hear you better at another time.
Do you have any tips for communicating clearly?
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