Communication Conundrum


The balancing act between our rational thoughts and our intrinsic emotions is a difficult one

No one reading this needs to be told that we are living in an anxious time. Communication seems to be filled with more “noise” than messages. Rabbi Edwin Friedman wrote, “Communication is an emotional process, not a cerebral one.” It is not possible to hear someone when you are emotionally moving away from them.

This is an idea that seems to go against a lot of what we are taught. Somehow, we have been taught that if our thoughts and words are clear and precise, we will be heard or understood. Why is it then that the person we’re speaking with misinterpreted what we said?

Communication is not just about the words. Though I think we can all admit that it is something that we do not like to look too closely at, we tend not to look at the emotional context in the room. It happens in families, work, government, even religion. Think about the times you and your significant other get into an argument. Whatever is said in those moments is often not heard (especially when the volume is turned up). When our emotions overcome our ability to be calm and collected, clear communication does not happen. Instead of moving toward the person, we end up moving away from them, and the other person becomes even more distant—both physically and emotionally.

Ultimately, our emotions dictate what we hear. When we watch the news, we not only hear the story, we feel it. The tone of the newscaster often becomes more memorable than the message itself. Or consider when you buy a car. A friend of mine who sells cars told me once, “Buying a car is an emotional thing. It has little to do with the car. It has a lot to do with how the car ‘feels.’” When I thought about how I buy a car, I realized he was right, the emotional process plays a hefty role.

So if our emotions impact how we hear, see, think, etc. then how do we keep them from getting in the way of how we communicate with others? How do we control our anxiety, our fears, our excitement, rather than let them control us?

The answer is in how well we know ourselves, I suppose. If I have an understanding of what “bugs” me and can keep my emotions in check, perhaps my life will be less stressful. I just might be able to hear what is going on around me and not react to it. In theory, this makes perfect sense. Though, I must admit, it is not easy for me—and I imagine for many others, too.

What happens if we leave emotion entirely out of the mix, though? I can recall an experience a number of years ago when my wife, Nancy, and I were volunteers in an evening community addiction program in Washington, D.C. Nancy was giving methadone pills to heroin addicts who were still actively using, while I conducted a therapy group. One evening in a group of eight to 10 people, I encouraged them to be open with their thoughts and feelings about one another. While I felt calm and dialed in to my role as a facilitator, the group members grew emotional. At one point, one male member began telling a woman in the group what he thought about her lifestyle. The woman quietly reached into her purse and brought out a pistol. “Take that back,” I can still vividly recall her saying. The man quickly replied, “I take it back. I take it back!”

Despite what was happening, my thinking was stuck in what I believed should be happening. I said to her, “You agreed to the rules of this group that there would be no violence.” She put the gun back into her purse. The group members thought little of her carrying; it was not new to them. Everyone just stared, and we simply went on with the session.

That night, I awoke in a cold sweat. I realized, hours later, what could have happened in that group had I—or others—let additional feelings out in that moment. At times, we can get so caught up in our thinking we are not able to feel at all. It worked in our favor that day, but something about it still felt off.

A month later, I stopped doing the group. The words of Rabbi Friedman came to mind: “Communication is an emotional process, not a cerebral one.” I thought I was doing what I had been taught intellectually, but I had blocked out my own emotions and therefore lost an opportunity to truly connect with the group members. I decided I needed to work on understanding why I was doing what I was doing and how to hold space for both what I’ve been taught and my emotions.

How each of us communicates largely depends on how well we can balance these two sides. Rethinking this most basic element of who we are and how we connect with others is a lifelong learning process, but one that may be worth our time and energy.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.