“What is it like to communicate with me?”
My assignment was to ask at least three people this question. It’s a curious thing to ask others to describe to you their perceptions of your verbal exchange. I sat quietly in front of the first interviewee, pen poised, ready for the answer. My specific job was to listen, ask follow up questions, and thank the person for his or her willingness to participate. I wondered if these purposeful, one-sided conversations would be as amusing as sharing the seat of a unicycle. Even posing the question made each person pause, and with an air of confused consideration, repeat back to me: “What is it like to communicate with you? Let me think.”
I have discovered such direct questions effectively open a magical pathway to what I like to call my “vulnerability café”. I envision this cozy, inner-space much like a corner coffee shop where the locals meet, connections happen, and comforting aromas mix with melodies of an acoustic guitar playing in the corner. Yes, I have created a wonderful, soothing space for the entire scope of my vulnerable aspects to mingle.
The door opens and the question enters. Suddenly, the light café chatter ceases. An inner imprudent noise begins that threatens my receptivity. I realize defensiveness could clog the opening, especially if the locals get offended and decide to riot. It’s happened before. Excuses line up, stories gather, and occasionally, an especially raw incident gets hoisted as an emotional flag, ready to be waved. I gently remind myself of the instructions: listen.
It’s a beautiful thing, listening. An active practice using my eyes, ears, heart, and body. An opportunity that invites connection, education and a chance to invest fully in another person, void of retorts from the vulnerability mob. I invite the entire café to stop and be still, to allow for the words, and be open to a different perspective. Fortunately, the patrons settle quickly, and I’m thankful for the years of conscious awareness aimed at addressing such uprisings. A calm curiosity is present as I listen to what the interviewee has to say.
Those I interviewed included a colleague, a police detective, my oldest son, and a neighbor. Each seemed curious about the open-endedness of the question. They wanted more direction, more specifics, but were thoughtful, and I sensed their honest desire to say something about me, to me.
The affiliations were fairly unique based on the length of time we had known each other, our genders, and how often we interacted. I honestly thought there would be a larger scope of diversity reflected, because of what I thought were obvious differences. What became apparent though, was the consistency of how I showed up for each one. I noticed shared words and ideas as each person answered the question, while themes of our individual relationships guided the narrative.
I heard words like supportive, non-invasive, direct and honest. This seemed to empty a few chairs in my vulnerability café, opening space for new questions and ideas to find a seat. I was beginning to realize the time and practice I had put into communicating consciously was bearing fruit right in front of me. The mindfulness, the message, the tone, was being reflected back to me by a particular selection of words and observations.
“You hold the space and allow for the answers to come forth. When you communicate, I notice you go straight to the point, with kindness; kind of like a dull butter knife.”
I can honestly say that was the first time I’d ever been compared to a kitchen tool (and a dull one at that).
“In a crisis, you’re calming and therapeutic. You take a pro-active approach, to find a solution. I feel like you want to problem solve in a loving way”.
“In all honesty, I’d say you have tons of empathy, no matter who it is. I have no doubts that you could handle some pretty bristly people. You understand a person, which helps them to be themselves. It comes across that you genuinely like people, and that makes you easy to communicate with.”
I appreciated the collective comments from my friends, and wondered what the chat with my oldest son would reveal. It’s valuable to realize that very little gets lost in translation when you have a child with a masters degree in Social Work. The years he invested in his training came through with his first statement; “It’s easier for me to talk about what I look for when I communicate with you”. Clearly, this was going to be educational.
“I can expect a lot of validation, but I also notice you tend to make lists of pros and cons when you step in to problem solve. For the most part, you’re really easy going”. I was surprised to hear it’s most difficult for him to communicate with me when I have a personal vesting in a situation. I thought I did a good job at being neutral, regardless of personal feelings. He explained further. “It’s easier for a personal bias to come out [when you’re invested], especially when it concerns your kids. I can see the lead in the conversation, even if you’re allowing for a choice in the decision”.
Yes, the art of parental conversation-leading can take many forms. I could sense the times the butter knife spread a sweet serving of ‘mom-knows-best’ over a conversation, justifying it with assumed-adult-knowingness. Yet, the fact is, true ownership of decision-making comes through the gift of neutrality.
“Normally, I have seen that it’s easy for you to allow someone to walk through their own personal process and offer open-ended questions; like an easy ebb and flow”.
Listen. Receive. Thank. There it was. My assignment was complete and I had valuable material to reflect on.
As I evaluated the information, it occurred to me that my curiosity regarding the other person’s perception lessened any defensiveness, which, in turn, invited them to be authentic. I also noticed clarity in our communication was an essential element that kept my café from overpopulating itself. I truly appreciated how this kind of personal mirror work could be used to diffuse conflict and build foundations for meaningful relationships. I’ve learned to invite feedback, knowing there will be times when its straight to the point, comfortable with the fact that I get to choose what to do with that information.
Overall, what I’ve come to embrace, is the understanding that the time and effort it takes to evaluate, deconstruct, reconstruct, and fine-tune how I relate to the world, is worth exposing myself to other experiences beyond the cozy café atmosphere. There are tangible rewards for risk takers, especially when it comes to relationships. At least that’s what I’ve discovered when I’ve opened those doors and turned on the welcome sign.