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The more we work on noticing details of our communications with others, the more we start to notice how much we usually miss. There are so many messages the person we talk to will send through very small nonverbal signals, the tone of their voice or their choice of words.
Especially when people may not choose to express themselves directly, or they are not even aware of what they communicate, you can achieve a great improvement in the relationship if you notice and wisely respond to such messages. Often we are not really aware of how great improvement in relationships can be achieved through increased awareness.
In many situations we do not pay enough attention to the meaning of what is communicated, so we end up not answering the right question at the right time. We might find out about the thoughts of other people belatedly or indirectly. Sometimes important things can be explained and arguments avoided if we could recognise the problem, or correctly translate what the other person is saying, or find better words to explain our thoughts; but as in the case of many other truly important aspects of life we rarely take time to really pay attention to detail.
For example, we had a young construction guy working for us when we were finishing our house. One day when he was around, my partner and I made a trip to the town to get some supplies. Soon after we came back, the construction guy came and asked me in a hushed tone if my partner was angry. (Spoiler: he wasn’t.) I thought he said “hungry” instead of “angry”, so I said: “I’m not sure… but I certainly am!”
I could see his eyes getting big, so I checked quickly and we clarified it easily. Years back, I probably would have dismissed it as unimportant or would have been too shy to ask. I imagine many arguments start over similar kind of misunderstanding, when people don’t notice or don’t react to non-verbal communication. Wise of our construction guy to check if his presumption was right, too!
Many people, when they are not sure what to say, attempt to answer too quickly. They respond with half-considered thoughts, clichés, empty witticisms, provocations, or simply withdraw to avoid conflict. It is completely different when in such situations we listen to our bodies and feel their messages. By listening to the feelings of your body and translating it to words you can recognise problems and seek healthy reactions more easily. This skill of inner awareness requires practice, given that in the midst of communication our focus is mostly external, which makes it more difficult to recognize subtle psychosomatic signals.
What is true spontaneity?
People often say there is no point in controlling themselves, because they want to relax and be spontaneous. The conflict between spontaneity and the effort to increase the quality of the communication becomes more common as soon as we invest time and energy in that direction.
My experience shows, and this is easy to recognise amongst most people, that ‘spontaneous’ and automatic reactions, those answers and behaviours that emerge from us before we think things over, almost before we even notice, are most often acquired defense mechanisms, or idioms we learned from our childhood environment – not true and honest reactions that really express who and what we are. In such cases it is important to learn not to react automatically. We need to give ourselves time to feel what is the true answer that comes from our feelings … providing that we have learned to be truthful to ourselves. That can be called the true spontaneity.
Many people are, however, afraid to take the time and not answer immediately, as if they have learned to expect that the other person will utilise this time to ‘outplay’ and ‘defeat’ them in communication. The reality is quite the opposite: not only, in many situations, does the other person not have the need for this, but by giving ourselves time we are sending them a message at several levels – first that we care about the outcome of our communication and that we want to carefully think about everything that was said and what we will say, and secondly that we are aware, present and reacting with honest feelings (which automatically means an attitude of self respect).
Also, in many situations when other people are communicating inappropriately, the time we spend to think about the answer often makes them also think about their own behaviour.
Interpreting nonverbal communication
Nonverbal communication carries the most important messages: not just conscious thoughts and feelings, but also the unconscious and unexpressed ones. However, we need to avoid the trap of black-and-white judgement and believing that a specific movement or gesture means exactly what we think it means. Many overly eager observers of nonverbal communication might annoy you trying to convince you that you are thinking what they think you are thinking… try not to become one of them.
Every gesture and change in people’s faces needs to be observed together with all other parts of verbal and nonverbal communication, instead of being “translated” separately. Different details in environment might influence the feelings of the person you talk to, as well as random thoughts, associations and memories. If the person is aware that you’re observing his non-verbals, he might feel and show uneasiness about it, if worried to be incorrectly judged. As in many other areas of life, I suggest you to allow your instinct and intuition to create an impression of what is going on, rather than using only rational analysis.
I tend to rely on my mind more than my body, so I had a mini-revelation when I was reading a book by Lois McMaster Bujold, one of my favorite fiction writers. In one scene, a guy throws something to a girl, yelling: “Watch!” Later, the girl asks him why did he yell “Watch”, rather than “Catch”? The guy replies that it’s much easier to catch something if you follow it with your eyes and let your body do the rest, rather than trying to think about how to catch it. We can use a similar attitude with non-verbal communication. Be present in the moment, use your eyes and ears, and let your subconscious mind do the rest. Important, but hidden messages are often communicated through “micro-signals” – tiny details our conscious brains cannot notice – but our subliminal minds can and do.
Real quality communication
If we try to control our non-verbal communication to send a message different than what we really feel, we will usually fail, except if we are particularly good actors. The nature of non-verbal language is unconscious and thus honest, so even if we manage to control some parts of our bodies, the others will signal how we really feel. A better approach is to truly create the feelings we want to communicate – not just for external results, but for our own improvement.
Every communication with other people, everything we tell them and the way we say it, influences their attitude toward us along with all further communication, i.e., how much will they trust us at another time and be open toward us. It’s easy to escape in the ‘spiritual realms’ – yet every day communication is where true spirituality is: awareness, honesty and self-improvement.
Often we say something like ‘I did everything I could… I don’t how to talk to that person anymore!’ Is this really true? Was there something more we could have said or done… maybe even many things… but perhaps we did not have the willingness, patience or courage to do so? Often ‘all I could do’ really means ‘all I could do without risking to be hurt or threatening my ego’.
Similarly as with relating to our own selves, when we relate to others we need time and perseverance in order to exercise being present in the moment, deep awareness and sensitivity to all that occurs within us and in the communication. It is not always easy to learn to communicate our thoughts in honest and compassionate ways. However, once we learn this, our relationships- the most important thing for the quality of our lives – have a chance to flourish.