Imagine you built a computer, but that computer had no means of outputting any information.
It didn’t generate an output signal and couldn’t display any content to a monitor or other such device.
Even if the computer was doing remarkable calculations inside, you’d never know.
But also, if the computer software or hardware became corrupted or broken, you’d never know either.
And because you’d never know what was happening inside that computer, you’d be powerless to make any meaningful changes or repairs to it.
The computer would be stuck in whatever state it was when it was built, with no capacity for improvement or refinement.
We create a similar situation with our own internal worlds if we shut down our attempts to communicate.
If we stay silent or only speak what we think others want to hear (like the computer outputting a ‘its fine’ screen, regardless of what was going on inside), we lose the opportunity to grow and develop, to let others help us heal, to communicate when we are broken or scared, to correct our perceptions, beliefs and expectations. In worse cases, staying silent means certain unhelpful beliefs or thoughts become distorted monster-like versions of their original selves.
There are many reasons why we might not communicate effectively. We might not be clear what we want to say. We might not know how to say it. We might be frightened to communicate our truth. Perhaps we are confused and don’t want to communicate until we are ‘sure’ we know what we want or need to say. Perhaps we are worried about being rejected or hurting other people. Maybe we’re scared to find out the way we’ve been understanding ourselves and our life is inaccurate or irrational.
The truth is, all of these things will happen. We’ll communicate badly at times. We’ll hurt others. What we say will be rejected. We will be confused. We will be wrong.
Communicating our truth isn’t a guarantee of good outcomes, but it is the only path that allows us to find some kind of meaningful equilibrium with the people and events in our lives. It is the only path that allows us to grow and develop. The costs of staying silent far outweigh the costs of having difficult conversations.
Consider when a computer outputs a ‘blue screen of death’ suggesting a significant internal problem. If you work with computers like I do, the appearance of the ‘blue screen of death’ is frustrating and annoying. But without it, you are unaware of when there is a serious problem in the computer. Without it, you don’t know that you need to take action to repair the issue. Without that screen, the computer itself has no real chance of being repaired and returned to duty.
Adaptation, repair, meaningful but difficult change can’t take place unless the signals coming from each of us (and that we are exchanging) are as accurate as we can describe them.
All of us hold beliefs and expectations and hopes and dreams that are sometimes out of kilter with the reality in which we exist. All of us have ‘bugs’ inside that impact on our experience of the world. But we can’t repair those bugs from inside. They need to be communicated to the outside world, where those around us can offer advice, thoughts, fixes, suggestions that change our inner world.
We are systems that need the presence and input of others to course correct.
And that process can’t happen if we shut down our communication methods. I’m experiencing this in my life at the moment. Many years of failing to communicate my inner world has hurt me and others in my life. Left me in a space where I can no longer reliably work out what I want or need. A major system bug.
Communication is really the only pathway out of that. Communicating what is happening for us (my truth), as well as responding honestly to what it is that others are communicating (your truth).
I’m not pretending it is easy though.
Communication might be central, but it doesn’t mean it either comes naturally or is free of errors. On the contrary, communication is a skill that we must build through doing. This means lots of trial and error, mistakes, failures, misunderstandings.
Often, during times of less skillful communication (either coming from us or from others) we might consider communication to be dangerous or unhelpful and abandon efforts. That would certainly describe my experience. Failed attempts at communication – misunderstandings, not feeling heard, possible conflict – all contribute to us wanting to close down communication. This is understandable and may be appropriate in the short-term, but as a long-term strategy, it will leave you further and further out of synch with the world around you.
And so it is a space we must put ourselves back in, even when uncomfortable.
And the more we do so, the more skilled we will get.
This isn’t just about being expressive of what is happening for us (my truth), but also about taking the time to truly listen to, understand and respond thoughtfully to the expressions of others. It isn’t just about expressing your feelings, but being able to listen to, and respond to the feelings of others. It is a constant back-and-forth through which both parties (or more) can clarify and defend their own point of view and that of the others in the conversation. That is the only condition from which it is possible to negotiate a solution or middle ground or course of action, especially when viewpoints are quite different. .
The need for open and skilled communication trumps the emotional impacts of that communication. It is more important that we are talking and communicating than it is that any of us might feel uncomfortable in the process. [this doesn’t apply in abusive situations, as abusing someone is not skilled and open communication].
We can become more skilled in the way we communicate. We can also become more skilled in how we respond to others’ communications. But much of that needs to happen in the context of actual life. Life is an apprenticeship in communication and thus we have opportunities everyday to practice these skills. The earlier you start, the better.
I didn’t build good emotional communication skills (or listening skills for that matter). I was (am) fine at communicating about the happenings of everyday life, but I am not good at understanding and communicating my deeper experience of life. I am also not good at encouraging and supporting others to do the same. I sometimes think this sits under my decision to not pursue clinical work in psychology.
I am now, to an extent, paying the price for not building those skills further. Hence this article.
So what is my ‘advice’ if I am not good at this myself.
Honesty, I don’t really know. I’m working this out as I go along.
Very broadly, I guess I am suggesting you self-reflect on the extent to which your communications with the people in your life are as honest and open as you need them to be, and if not, to consider at least, what it might look like if you were to clarify and speak your truth. And not with the intent to hurt, simply with the intent to ensure a more accurate picture of your experience is available to those who know you best.
Because if you don’t process your experiences in this way, you may end up like the computer from the intro, unable to tell the world that something isn’t quite working inside.