The distance between people is often wide. Beyond the connection shared through physical touch, it is our words and ears that bring our hearts and minds together. This gap widens by complex gender differences and our human tendency to let emotions burn bridges between us. Sometimes we can drift so far apart that it feels impossible to ever find the connection originally shared.
A universal human desire is to be heard and understood. We are wired for connection. We want to know that those we love care to know us and to let us know them. The more we care about another person, the more important this becomes. Ironically, in spite of this deep desire to be heard and understood, when communication breaks down, the result is often greater defensiveness and a false presentation of apathy. Eventually, people just stop sharing.
One key component of a real empathetic connection is understanding the true emotional experience of the other. Sometimes what is expressed at the surface as anger or anxiety may actually be fear or hurt. Empathy is stepping outside of our own experience to consider with fresh curiosity how the other person may actually feel. This is difficult because of our own tendency to interpret the actions of others sometimes assuming the worst (which usually is not true!)
Here are some common things people who stop communicating feel and what their silence might say if spoken:
- Fear: “I can’t tell you how I really feel or what I really think because I’m afraid you will freak out. I don’t trust that you’ll really be able to handle the truth.”
- Insecurity: “I can’t be open with you because I don’t think you’ll accept how I really am or how I really feel…”
- Apathy: “I am not going to tell you anything because you don’t really care anyway, and if you did then you would…”
- Hopelessly Frustrated: “There’s no point in telling you now… I’ve already told you a billion times and you just don’t get it!”
- Stupid: “I’m not going to share because I know you’ll just give me advice and try to solve my problems for me.”
Many other common reasons exist as to why communication breaks down, even though we are wired for connection. The most common reason people either stop talking or keep repeating themselves is because they do not feel heard or understood. Most of the time we have two speakers and no listeners. Yet we have two ears and one mouth.
Words are the bricks and empathy is the mortar in building a bridge that can stand the test of time. Effective empathy involves understanding the message, then communicating and reflecting that message back to the other through body language and active listening. We call this a “listening check” where one seeks to verify if the message sent was actually the message received.