The last 2 posts dealt with communication. This is the last post on this subject. It is an excerpt from the book Loving Each Other: The Challenge of Human Relationships, written by Leo Buscaglia in 1984. To read the previous posts please click on these links:
“What Do You Say After You’ve Said “I Love You?”
Once we’ve opened the avenues of communication, how do we keep them open?
It is obvious that there is more to communication than what meets the ear. There are many kinds of language, that of words, that of silence, that of action and that of listening.
Words are wonderful, but they are not things. Words stand for things but they are not the things they stand for. For example we can see a female walking across the street and identify her with the word “lady” or “woman.” Lady or woman is a symbol for the person but the person is more than the symbol — she may be a mother, a business person, a daughter, a mother-in-law, a lonely person, a joyous individual, etc., ad infinitum.
Words are just phonetic symbols (sounds) put side by side into some agreed-upon order and given a meaning. The object “car” for instance, could have been called a “jup” or “liz” or whatever. It would still stand for the object “car” if we didn’t know the difference.
Mark Twain has a hilarious short story about Eve’s interfering with Adam’s charge to name all things in the world. Adam has a terrible time being creative. Eve on the other hand, names everything by characteristics. He, for instance, calls his environment The Garden of Eden. Eve corrects him and points out that the setting is nothing like a garden, but far more like a park. She, therefore, insists upon calling it Niagara Falls Park. The point, of course, is that words are simply tools with which we can organize our environment. We can call anything whatever we choose.
We learn words as very young infants. We have few resources other than words as symbols with which to organize our worlds. The significant people in our environment teach us our usable vocabulary — dictionary definition of words, the intellectual content of the word. We think with the words we acquire from them and we become what we think. But it is even more complex than that. To each word we think we also attach an emotional content. This is how we feel about what the word represents. For example, let’s take the word mother. We can easily define the term as a female parent. That’s true. It is the intellectual content of the word but it is also a very shallow definition depending upon our unique experience with mothers. Our experiences with this word can conjure up feelings of elation — “It will be great fun seeing mother.” “There is nothing like mother’s lasagna!” Or the sound of the word mother can bring out negative feelings — “Oh no! She’s a drag!” “If mother is coming with us, I’m staying home!” It is obvious, then, that the emotional content of a word is of equal, if not more, significance than the intellectual content.
Words continue to elicit responses of hate, fear, anxiety, and avoidance, responses we learned as children when we first encountered the word and have never bothered to redefine as adults.
There are those who hate “________ “ with a passion. There are others who are quick to condemn races, religions, customs, beliefs, based solely upon their response to the symbol attached rather than their actual experience. They avoid, distrust, and even desire to destroy individuals who the symbols represent. Communication with people who have these strong emotional sets breaks down, in most cases, before it gets started.
What is your response when you hear the words Communist, Jews, Atheist, Cancer, Rapist, God, Love, Hope, Forgiveness, Rapture? Have you ever stopped long enough to analyze these words in your present state of maturity? Much has happened to most of us in terms of sensitivity, experience and education from when we acquired these words, perhaps decades ago. Have you ever tried defining words and rewriting your own personal adult dictionary?
There were many such labels which caused me pain as a child. Dago, Wop, Poor, Catholic, Retard, Skinny. Wehave, most of us, known painful labels. Many of us are still judged, excluded or included, loved or hated, because of labels. Millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis, not because they were people, simply because they were Jews. Even today such murders are occurring because of political or religious labels all over the world.
So it is essential to know, if we desire to communicate, that we must be careful about the words we use, for they may be using us! We can and must control our words. We can change our definitions and our feelings relating to them. It is only in this way that we become free to control our lives, for the words we use will, in a very real sense, determine our belief systems and our actions. Use them rather than be used and narrowed by them!
Though words are still the major source of communication, they are not the only source. In fact, St. Exupéry said, “Words can be a source of great misunderstandings.” We also talk to each other in wordless messages. When I see people on the street I almost always say, “Good morning. How are you?” Many times they answer, almost fiercely, “Fine!” I cannot help but wonder, “Then why the hell don’t you tell your face?”
We talk to each other with smiles, with handshakes, with hugs, with laughter, with eye contact, with touching, holding, enfolding, and a myriad of gestures. These, too, are languages. Some of which may “speak louder than words.” You can tell a great deal about a person when he or she shakes your hand. A hug can send off so many messages. A glance can suggest a thousand words. Still, not too many of us respect the power of wordless messages. We do not even think about what they are telling others about us.
I was recently in a hospital with a most serious cardiac condition. I had many nurses taking care of me day and night. It soon became apparent which nurses were performing routine duties and which were actually engaged in helping patients to heal. How a thermometer was put in my mouth carried a special meaning. So did taking my pulse, giving a backrub, taking a moment to greet me warmly with a touch. Wellness comes from within but communicated warmth helps to bring it forth. I had a room full of flowers and plants. It was a joy to share them through the ward. I’d take them and use them as an opening to friendship. “For me?” the other patients would ask, and already one could see expressions of joy on their faces, eyes taking on new life. Someone cares. I made friends in almost every room. The doctors made medical rounds in the morning and Buscaglia made love rounds for the rest of the day. My own health increased amazingly fast — and I could perceive attitudinal changes in many of the others almost daily. One man who, on my first visit had said, “Who the hell cares? I may as well die!” was walking around the ward with the before I left. To “say” is wonderful but to “do” can have even greater power. I had a Buddhist teacher several years back who taught me that “to know, and not to do, is not yet to know!”
Unless you enjoy talking to yourself, it takes two for human communication. This usually means one to speak and the other to listen. But listeners are as rare as sensitive speakers. Most of us have forgotten the fine art of listening. If we listen at all, which is rare, we have the static of our own preconceived ideas working constantly until, when all is said and done, we hear not what the person is saying but what we are prepared to hear. We often find that people have answers to our queries and solutions to our problems prior to our stating them.
I recently discovered that the average speaker can utter 125 words per minute. The listener can process about 400 to 600 words per minute. True listening is determined by how we decide to use the intervals. Are we preparing our own dialogue? Are we planning tomorrow’s menu? Are we fantasizing about what we could be doing or places we might prefer being rather than where we are? Are we observing and sensing the person’s mannerisms, clothes, grammar, sexual quotient? All these things often seem to be occurring at once and it’s only afterwards when arguments ensue that we see how much was missed.
The pitfalls to true listening are expressed in a thoughtful poem Listen by an anonymous writer.
When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice,
you have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why
I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do
something to solve my problems, you have failed me, strange
as that may seem.
Perhaps that’s why prayer works for some people. Because
God is mute and He doesn’t offer advice or try to fix things.
He just listens and trusts you to work it out for yourself.
So please, just listen and hear me. And if you want to talk,
wait a few minutes for your turn and I promise I’ll listen to you.
Sharing, so vital to loving communication, stops when you sense the other person is not listening or caring, and the sad part is that often we are not given a second chance.
A third, and most vital level of communication is also nonverbal. It is communication through action. You may remember that Eliza Doolittle’s love message in the great Lerner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady was “Show me!” If you love me, she shouts, don’t just talk about it — show me in action! Do loving things for each other. Be considerate. Put your feelings into action. Make that favorite food. Send the flowers. Remember the birthday or anniversary. Create your own love holidays to celebrate — don’t just wait for Valentine’s Day.
Now, the final question.
What is everyone doing instead of saying, “I love you?”
We are mainly distancing, destroying, intimidating, disappointing, degrading, devaluing and we don’t know how to change this. A new language of love can remakeour minds. In their important book, The Human Connection, Ashley Montagu and Floyd Matson state that love is the highest form of communication. They say:
Human communication, ‘as the saying goes, is a clash of symbols’ it covers a multitude of signs. But it is more than media and messages, information and persuasion; it also meets a deeper need and serves a higher purpose. Whether clear or garbled, tumultuous or silent, deliberate or fatally inadvertent, communication is the ground of meeting and the foundation of community. It is, in short, the essential human connection.
So, if you want to make the human connection in a loving relationship you may want to review the following:
- Tell me often that you love me through your talk, your actions and your gestures. Don’t assume that I know it. I may show signs of embarrassment and even deny that I need it — but don’t believe it, do it anyway.
- Compliment me often for jobs well done and don’t downgrade but reassure me when I fail. Don’t take the many things I do for you for granted. Positive reinforcement and appreciation works toward making sure I repeat them.
- Let me know when you feel low or lonely or misunderstood. It will make me stronger to know I have the power to comfort you. Feelings, unverbalized, can be destructive. Remember, though I love you, I still can’t always read your mind.
- Express joyous thoughts and feelings. They bring vitality to our relationship. It’s wonderful to celebrate nonbirthdays, personal Valentine’s days. Give gifts of love without reason and hear you verbalize your happiness.
- When you respond to me so I feel special, it will make up for all those who, during the day, have passed me up without seeing me.
- Don’t invalidate my being by telling me that what I see or feel is insignificant or not real. If I see and feel it — for me — it’s my experience and therefore important and real!
- Listen to me without judgment or preconception. Being heard, like being seen, is vital. If you truly see me and hear me as I am at the moment it is a continued affirmation of my being as we help each other to change.
- Touch me. Hold me. Hug me. My physical self is revitalized by loving nonverbal communication.
- Respect my silences. Alternatives for my problems, creativity, and my spiritual needs are most often realized in moments of quiet.
- Let others know you value me. Public affirmation of our love makes me feel special and proud. It is good to share the joy of our relationship with others.
I know you’re probably thinking that the above ideas are not really necessary between lovers. They occur spontaneously. Not so. It is these very aspects of communication that are the cornerstones of a healthy loving relationship. They also make up the most beautiful sounds in the world!”
The entire text is by: Leo Buscaglia, “Loving Each Other through Communication” in Loving Each Other: The Challenge of Human Relationships, 1984, 59-62.