P.O. BOX 1405, Durango, CO 81302
Conversations come in all ways, shapes and sizes. We are focusing on two way “one on one” conversations. The assumption is that two people in conversation has many dynamics; enough to fill a book with insight, perspective and dialog on the topic of conversations. But we know that the subject is diverse, complex and varied; if our understanding of others and to a large degree ourselves comes from a lifetime of conversations.
Listening for Emotional Content:
We all have emotions and emotional responses that we reveal and conceal in each conversation. In a formal and polite conversation, we reveal little and conceal much. In these conversations, we are carefully seeing if the water of emotional content is hot, cold or just right. Our preference is to avoid scalding waters of emotion or the chilly waters of isolation. But here is the challenge: If we reveal nothing and conceal everything, we may learn nothing about the other person or their needs. And in some cases that is what we want to happen. On the on end of the spectrum, the emotions are flowing so forcefully, that we become vulnerable and risk conversational misunderstanding. And how do we listen for emotional content? An emotional response is a red flag for an unmet need. And most of us have many unmet needs. These unmet needs are yearning for conversations that are safe, secure and without judgment. People seek out those that will help to create a safe place for conversations in which emotional content can be expressed without fear of rejection or isolation.
Why are emotions such a challenge for us to deal with? There are a number of reasons, but one that makes conversations soaked with emotional content very difficult is they are unpredictable, or too predictable. Fear of rejection; fear of failure, fear of isolation, and fear of not being loved are heart felt emotions that challenge us at the core. And in order to protect the vulnerable places in our hearts and souls, we conceal our true feelings and reveal as little as possible. To love and share feelings, to express needs with others is to be authentic and vulnerable. These actions subject us to the risk of being hurt or taken advantage of emotionally.
This is not to suggest that we abandon our natural instincts to keep conversations safe, sanitized and without consequence. This is an approach with fails the relationship test: only with some degree of revealing, vulnerability and listening for emotional content can we grow in our relationships with others. To reject the emotional content of a conversation is to dishonor the needs of each other. But this is sacred ground, in the sense that in sharing emotions, we directly and indirectly share feeling, emotions and dreams. This is our essence, our true “who we really are”, that is usually hidden behind the mask of careful words, polite conversations and hidden personal pain. But conversations have a way of developing based on the maturity of the two people involved, the creation of a safe place to talk and the intention of the conversationalist.
This may be why people spend large sums of money with counselors, therapists and coaches: simply to be heard in an emotionally safe environment. I am fortunate to have an excellent personal development coach who is more that just a ‘professional listening’, but rather a genuine confidant and guide through the challenges of life. But many times, we are at the professionals’ office because in the rest of our lives we are so misunderstood. And we have so many unmet emotional needs.
Which leads us back the importance of listening for the emotional content (needs, unmet and met) in a conversation. Whether premeditated, or spontaneous, whether purposeful and casual, we will reveal parts and pieces of our emotional needs and heart felt feelings over time. And it takes the skilled listener and conversationalist to listen for this emotional content. This, in order to create an emotionally safe environment for conversation, that will bridge the gaps created by unmet expectations, hurt feelings and difference of opinion.
Fear and Shame:
Remember the discussion about fears? We are tilting and turning ourselves and our approaches to conversations based on the perceptions we have. What will other think of us? What will those closest think of us? What are we afraid of? Usually it is fear of isolation, fear of rejection, fear of failure and fear of being unloved. So we will test the winds of conversations and the temperature of other people’s emotions by offering up questions, comments and quips that help us to see where we might be heading with the next conversation.
In a company that I owned, we had an outgoing, but firm general manager, who had a strong personality. He enjoyed being in charge and making things happen. Each day, the staff would test the winds of conversation by seeing what kind of “mood” the general manager was in. If he was joking around and teasing, then the staff felt safer and more at ease. However, if he was all business, they know to keep their conversations to a minimum. What were they afraid of? Whether the general manager realized it or not (he probably didn’t), his gruff nature on the “all business days” projected fear to those around him. Others were afraid on getting “in trouble” [rejection, or failure] or they we uncomfortable with the “all business” side of things [isolation-lack of interpersonal exchange]. On the other hand, if the general manager was more outer directed, friendly and at ease, those around him were the same. Thus, our personal approach and skills at interpersonal relationships, including putting others ‘at ease’, goes along way in determining the safety and comfort zone for conversations.
Remember your Mom? And how she could motivate, strike fear and love you all on the same day (or same hour?). While not the only tool a mother may use (or any of us, for that matter), we will use fear, obligation and guilt (FOG) with those we love and want to influence most. In common speak, this is call ‘fogging’, where we use a combination of fear and shame in our conversations to motivate, move or impact others. While this can be a very effective tool for communications and influence, it can be very dangerous in terms of conversations. Fear can be a very effective leverage tool in interpersonal relationships, but it can also drain the life out of conversations. We normally avoid fear (and try to change the subject, venue or conversations). And no one likes to experience shame, which is based on the fear of isolation or fear of rejection. So what exactly does fogging have to do with conversations?
Fear and shame, leveraged by fogging, can has a devastating impact on another person. While there are times growing up and time of immaturity in our adult life that require our Moms (and parents or loved ones) to using the ‘fear & shame’ leverage techniques, this approach to communications should be reserved for critical occasions. In particular, when nothing seems to be working. But for regular conversations, the use of fear and shame, can really confuse the issues and drawn down emotionally from the relationship.
Acceptance and a Safe Place:
The opposite of the ‘fear and shame’ approach, we commonly referred to as ‘fogging’, is the acceptance and safety approach to conversations. We’ll refer to this as ‘open arms’ and ‘open hands’. Open arms as the word picture of acceptance, and open hands as the word picture of welcoming and a safe place. This non-judgmental approach is the key to a successful conversations environment. Because we accept another, doesn’t mean we always agree, or don’t have varying views or perspective. Rather, acceptance is personal (who you are in “essence” level). And it creates a safe place to talk, share and have a conversation. My wife Susie has mastered this approach, especially with our kids, when they were young. Regardless of what our kids wanted to talk about while growing up, Susie would create an atmosphere of acceptance and safety, in which the kids could share anything. To this day, my daughter Corrie still calls home on a regular basis to experience the caring of listening by her Mom with acceptance and safety. If you think about the places where the best conversations occur, it is where it is safe personally (and emotionally) and you are accepted for who you are.
Why is this so? There are a number of reasons, but one primary one is that we are people and we experience life, which is full of a wide range and combination of emotions. The fears we have identified can trigger emotional responses. In contrast, personal acceptance (love, care and respect) will impact the seat of emotion. In a similar way, knowing that it is safe (trust, respect, personal care) will support both your emotional health and quality of relationships.
So conversations are the foundation of good (or poor) relationships.
How do we share in conversations, given the different levels of communications we need to engage in? What are the examples of levels of communications, and types of conversations we may see?