We need new communication skills that can match our new technology if we are going to find a way to live in peace on this small planet.
We live in an age of astonishing technology that allows us to do things that were unimaginable to our ancestors. We can push a button on the computer and find any information in minutes, travel around the earth in a day, talk directly to someone on a different continent, and send images through wires instantly. Our level of personal independence is unprecedented in human history. Yet for all this seeming progress, we have not learned how to live and work together in peace.
While we have made impressive advances in science, our way of relating to each other has not changed much since the Stone Age. We often rely on our instincts of fight or flight when we feel threatened, and still believe that attacking or withdrawing will resolve our conflicts with other people. Most of us do not know how to communicate our basic feelings and needs without blame, or hear another person’s experience without judgment.
With more than six billion of us now sharing the resources of our small planet, tensions between people can only increase, and our inability to cooperate may be the largest threat we face to our survival as a species. In an age of nuclear weapons, global climate change, massive environmental pollution, and a world-wide economy, it is clear that the actions of each one of us affect everyone else here on earth. In this light, our reliance on primitive survival instincts to manage our relationships makes no sense. If we continue to choose competition over cooperation, we insure our own eventual demise.
We Need a New Way
There are few things more important today than learning to communicate with each other in a way that supports our individuality while also recognizing our interdependence. The old formulas for relationships are failing because they do not allow for each of us to be our own person. And, our new emphasis on personal growth and individual freedom has left us without a good way to connect with each other.
We think we cannot be ourselves
and maintain close relationships with other people.
Yet this is not so;
we simply have not yet learned how
When we listen to another person, most of us automatically compare and evaluate their experiences against our own. We form instant judgments, and then respond with our opinions. Conversations often play out with each person expressing their point of view and engaging in a subtle tug of war to see whose opinion will prevail. In these common interactions each of us is focusing primarily on ourselves. We do this out of habit, without realizing what we are doing or how it affects our relationships.
We tend to use our interactions with other people primarily for self-validation. Most of our communication is aimed at promoting our point of view, with an emphasis on who is right rather than what we need to be happy. Instead of connecting us, these habits often engender conflict and distance us from each other. We have grown accustomed to the tension of competition in many of our relationships, and while it may give us a momentary sense of purpose, it undermines our ability to feel connected.
The consequence of constantly referring to ourselves is that we cannot make space for another person. Few of us are able to simply allow another person’s experience or give them validation. We only experience other people as part of our story, and do not get to see them for who they are. We tend to focus on our differences rather than our similarities and go through life feeling isolated in our own small world, chronically disappointed that no one really understands us.
Listening without Judgment
Breaking this habit of isolation begins by being aware of how we refer everything to ourselves, and noticing how this disconnects us from others and makes us feel more alone. Once we see that these old habits are not working, we become open to learning a new way.
A better way to establish a sense of connection is to listen without judgment. We can accept and acknowledge what is going on for another person by mirroring back the feelings and facts we hear in their story, without adding our own comments. If someone is upset about not being chosen to go on a school trip we can say: “You seem sad about not getting to go on that trip.”
This kind of response does not refer to ourselves or compare their story with ours. It contains no judgments or solutions, and does not get involved with the other person’s dilemma except to acknowledge it with empathy and concern. The greatest gift we can offer another is simple acceptance without judgment. Most people are starving for this kind of recognition. It gives them the encouragement they need to face their situation and begin resolving it on their own.
The Difficulty of Changing Old Habits
Repeating back what the other person just said may feel awkward at first because it is so unfamiliar. We are used to sharing our opinions, and to merely reflect another person often sounds mechanical and rehearsed. It is easy to believe that it won’t work because it seems so obvious and sounds rather absurd. We may determine that it is too contrived and refuse to try it, yet a more likely reason that we resist this approach is because it does nothing to promote ourselves.
Our judgments often seem so important to us that we cannot set them aside. Our ego is usually too strong to simply hear another persons experience without adding our own opinion. We want so badly for our point of view to be heard, that we often cannot make room to simply allow someone else’s.
Many of us remain stuck in this struggle for self-validation, unable to give up our need for recognition, and unwilling to admit that this approach is not working. We do not see that competing for attention keeps us isolated from each other and does not address our deeper need for belonging. Thus we need some mechanism, such as this simple listening skill, that effectively interrupts our habit of comparing and enables us to accept other people as they are.
Learning any new skill feels uncomfortable and superficial at first, and only becomes more natural and authentic as we get used to it. This new way of communicating is simply a means to dislodge us from our unconscious pattern of self-referral. Only when we learn to let go of our evaluations and set aside our own story for a moment can we really understand someone else’s perspective. This enables us to be truly supportive and resolves our isolation by allowing another person to be a companion, and not merely an adjunct to our story.
Being Responsible for Our Own Feelings and Needs
Just as we have not learned how to really listen, most of us also don’t know how to respond when we feel upset by another person. We usually complain about that person to someone else, withdraw from them, or attack them with accusations. Yet these responses do not help us to get our needs met. Instead, they make the situation worse by putting the other person on the defensive.
We can communicate more effectively in these situations by taking responsibility for our own feelings and needs. Instead of blaming another person for being insensitive when they interrupt us, we can say: “I feel hurt when you don’t let me finish my sentence.” This kind of language, often referred to as “I” messages, gives us a way to speak directly to the person who upset us without judging or attacking them.
“I” messages, or assertions, help the other person to hear us and respond to our needs, rather than merely get defensive and shut down. This new language gives us a way to express our strong feelings without making someone else responsible for them. It enables us to meet our needs, and strengthen the relationship, at the same time.
A Technology for Cooperation
We have a unique capacity among the animal kingdom for using tools to get a task done more efficiently. Yet while our amazing technologies enable us to take better care of our physical needs, they have not helped us take care of our emotional needs or build stronger relationships with each other.
Evidence of our lack of communication skills is all around us. From the breakup of families to war between nations, our world is being torn apart by our inability to resolve our differences. As we face any number of looming global catastrophes, our continued existence on earth will likely hinge on our ability to get along. It is no longer sustainable to manage relationships by force or withdrawal. In the era ahead, cooperation will be the most important skill, and building community will become essential to support life.
It is time now to channel our amazing capacity for technology into creating a means to live together in peace. We need to learn how to achieve a genuine sense of belonging without sacrificing our individuality. We have to find a way to allow other people to have their own values without making them the enemy. And, we have to expand our definition of tools to include ways of staying connected through conflict and making decisions that include everyone’s needs.