“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place”
George Bernard Shaw
The way in which we each interpret the world is pretty unique. Often, we fail to acknowledge this, thinking autobiographically, from our own perspective.
A woman looked out of the window every morning and commented on the dirty laundry on her neighbour’s washing line. One day she noticed that it was sparkling clean. “Maybe she’s using a new washing powder” she remarked. “No”, said her husband, “I got up early and cleaned our windows”.
A few weeks ago the weather was lovely and a walk on the beach was beckoning.
Since the age of 3, when we moved to the coast, our youngest son has been a beach-junkie. He is magnetically drawn to water – even puddles. But now the beach is in competition with his latest passion, playing on Xbox Live with his friends. Here’s how the conversation went when I made my beach suggestion:
– Me: “Let’s go to the beach to run around and get some fresh air”
– Son: “No thanks, I’m playing Minecraft with my friends”
– Me: “You love the beach. It’s only for an hour or so. Exercise is good for you”.
– Son: “Nah”
I was getting no-where fast.
In his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen R Covey introduces us to Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It’s about stepping into someone else’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective, so that you can respond to them in the best way possible.
I tried again, using Covey’s advice and played my ace card – fossils. Dinosaurs and fossils are what sold the Isle of Wight to him when we moved here 3 years ago.
– Me: “Let’s go fossil hunting on the beach”
– Son: “Where are my shoes ?”
Sometimes, we listen autobiographically too.
Think about the most recent time someone talked to you about a problem they had. Did your mind wander off to search its filing system for something similar that has happened to you ? Did you then, to be helpful, share your experience ? It’s something our brains automatically do.
The trouble is that when we listen autobiographically, we are looking at the situation and providing advice from our own perspective. What we should be doing is giving the person our full attention, actively listening and stepping into their shoes.
“The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT”
Last year I had some training from the Arbinger Institute, about improving communication and relationships. It seemed to boil down to one thing, treating people as people, not as objects. It brought to mind the following poem, which I’m sure that many NHS colleagues will be very familiar with.
The cute little lady in the blue sweater, by Dawn Maselli RN
They can take my meal away before I’m done, they can talk to me like I’m dumb
They can refer to me as a “Feeder”, fluff me up to make me look neater
They talk about me like I’m not here, they address me as “honey”, “cutie” or “dear”
But there are things they can’t do to me, as they insult my dignity
Oh there are things they can’t do to me, they can’t take away my memories
My roles through this life cement my presence, with withered mind they call senescence
I am rich in culture, wisdom & knowledge, that medical people can’t learn in college
I am a mother, a sister, a historian, a wife, I have mastered many roles throughout my life
I created warm meals in my day, I cared for a close knit family, who look up to & value me
And now I master another role, dependent patient with golden soul
If just one of “them” would sit with me, I’d share with them this history
And if one would stay awhile, I’d teach them that I’m still God’s child.
They are so busy this I know, I have aged & have gotten slow
This I must share in written word, I may not be seen but I will be heard
They say I’m anxious, noisy and loud, this life has taught me not to be too proud
I am too many things to capture in a letter, I am so much more than the lady in the blue sweater
If you’ve listened from the start, I may help you find your heart.
The word “communication” comes from the Latin word “communicare”, which means “to share”. Without a shared understanding, things get lost in translation.
When I was growing up, one of my grandfathers was always very quiet. He sat in the background, watching myself and my siblings play and I have to say that as a consequence, I really didn’t feel I knew him very well. Of course, I loved him, but we didn’t really communicate. In my 20’s I started to get interested in the family tree, so one day, I sat down with him and asked him to tell me about his life. We sat on the sofa for hours and he painted me the picture of his early years, bringing to life his parents, brothers and sisters. We held hands, with tears rolling down our cheeks as he re-lived waving one his brothers off to war – it was the last time he saw him. What an amazing, powerful, shared experience that was. I now have such a wonderful memory to cherish.
Let’s invest in some active listening; to treat people as people. Let’s seek to step into the shoes of others, to understand their perspective. We will then know how best to meet their needs, but also how best to help them to understand ours, avoiding misunderstandings and improving relationships.
By doing so, it seems to me that there is little to lose and everything to gain.
Have a great week.