On the Illusion of Communication

Zan_Zig_performing_with_rabbit_and_roses,_magician_poster,_1899“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”- George Bernard Shaw

I’ve always thought of myself as a good communicator. I thought I was doing awesome. I could string those sentences together like nobody’s business. I was sending out clear messages to the world!

Yeah, right. That illusion held right up until communication broke down and I could not fix it. My message was not getting through. I was not being heard by the one person I so desperately wanted to hear me. The tinnitus caused by my own intense emotions did not allow me to hear them either.

It turns out that the way I’ve been communicating with other people—pretty much with the verbal equivalent of a mallet—was expressly designed to never having my needs met.

I have been following this formula my whole life:

  1. You did something to cause an icky feeling in me (or I did something and don’t want to face it so I blame you).
  2. It is your responsibility to make it go away and
  3. this is exactly how you have to do it.
  4. Insert blunt instrument here to hammer you over the head with here.

I’ve been working on changing that. Attempting to communicate in a way that will actually allow myself to be heard has been by far the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life, harder than childbirth, final exams, moving couches up three flights of stairs, traveling on a long flight with two toddlers.

Why Is Communication So Damn Hard?

Because communication presupposes that I actually know what I want to say and that’s one, big, whopping assumption.

I have come to realize that I have spent most of my life not knowing my own heart. Because to know my own heart would have meant confronting all those icky emotions­—fear, jealousy, shame, grief, longing —to name just a few. These feelings are as uncomfortable as a bad case of poison ivy, and I denied them until I couldn’t anymore.

Up until now, I’ve been barreling through the world like an out-of-control wagon filled with needs and emotions I’ve never unpacked and therefore don’t know I’m carrying. At the speed that I’ve been going, when I hit a bump, something inevitably spills out. I don’t know what it is and don’t stop to look if it hit somebody in the face.


Growing up and facing oneself is so much fun isn’t it?

After a particularly epic failure at communication last year, I decided to pick up Marshall Rosenberg’s book on Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

Here is how Marshall Rosenberg describes the process:

“First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgement or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like. Next, we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated? And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. An awareness of these three components is present when we use NVC to clearly and honestly express how we are…[The] fourth component addresses what we are wanting from the other person that would enrich our lives or make life more wonderful for us.” P. 6


Have you ever tried this? If not, let me just say that it is easier said than done.

I read the book and realized that when I thought I was communicating, I was actually hitting people over the head with my own story, or as the buzzword is these days, “my truth”.

The Dark Side of Speaking One’s Truth

We tend to feel the need to “speak our truth” when we’ve been hurt. And then we wield “our truth” like a weapon, swinging it around and bludgeoning those who have hurt us.

The problem is, we mistake this bludgeoning for empowerment. Because we’re hurt, we feel we have the right to unleash our uncensored judgement on the person that hurt us and the consequences in the name of “speaking one’s truth.” Then we feel all brave and like we’ve stood up for ourselves. We have spoken our truth. We are not victims. No—We are fierce, indomitable warriors who are not going to take this shit anymore!

I have been on both sides of this monkey-throwing circus (see this post for elaboration about the monkey thing). I have been the one trying to express “my truth” through any means possible. Through very eloquent and scathing letters detailing exactly how I’ve been hurt. Through mutually bludgeon-y phone calls where both parties try to hammer in each other’s story inside the other person’s head.

I have also made mistakes. Inadvertently hurt other people. And they have felt the need to “speak their truth” in a similar bludgeon-y manner.

Are we speaking to be heard or just to be speaking to yell?

Speaking ones’ truth is not going to be worth a damn thing if the person who you really need to hear you is too busy fending off your blows, their ears ringing too loudly to hear anything you say.


My point.

Speaking one’s truth is a great power that comes with great responsibility.

We have got to stop wielding it like children with big sticks.

What is the point of speaking one’s truth? Is it simply to say it out loud? For the record? Or do we actually want people to hear it, to express the impact of someone’s action on us and ask for change?

Marshall Rosenberg’s writes about this in his introduction to his book Non-violent communication:

“I find my cultural conditioning leads me to focus attention on places where I am unlikely to get what I want. I developed NVC as a way to train my attention—to shine the light of consciousness— on places that have the potential to yield what I am seeking. What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving of the heart.”

I for one am tired of the violence. Of bludgeoning and being bludgeoned. Like Marshall Rosenberg, I want compassion in my life. For myself, for those I love. I want to feel safe and not judged. I want to be able to create that same feeling for those around me.

And it has to start with how well we can look into our own hearts. How committed we are to  digging through the emotional grime we’ve accumulated over the years and uncovering the needs underneath.

If we can do this, if we can take responsibility for our own needs, try meeting them without foisting them on those we love, we might just be able to take that next step towards true connection.



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