What We Have Here, Is Failure to Communicate

Couple Seated Back To Back, Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis; maggie mcreynolds blog

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

It’s an old joke: the four-year-old asks, “Mommy, where did I come from?” and Mom, fervently wishing this had happened on Dad’s watch, launches into a lengthy and somewhat euphemistic ramble about mommies having eggs, and daddies having sperm, and that in some sort of vague but definitely married way the two meet up and form an embryo, which grows in the mommy’s tummy and then eventually the baby comes out through a special place between the mommy’s legs.


“Oh,” says the kid. “Jimmy comes from Albuquerque.”

The punch line’s cute, but don’t let it obscure an important point: Mom didn’t really hear or understand the intent behind her son’s question, and so she gave him information he wasn’t asking for and didn’t need.

What we have here, as Strother Martin so famously drawled in Cool Hand Luke, is failure to communicate. And there’s a lot of it going around.

My college boyfriend was very French, and spoke fractured English. The only French I knew was travel phrasebook stuff, which meant I was limited to asking the whereabouts of the train station or protesting that the price of an item was “too dear.” One day, we were building a set together in the college theater workshop, and I was having trouble screwing two pieces of screening together.

My boyfriend saw my problem: “You are on the wrong side,” he told me. Baffled but game, I moved around to the other side of the screen. “No, no,” he said, “you are on the wrong side.” We went back and forth on this for longer than I care to admit or that would be interesting to detail, until finally he was red-faced and screaming at me, and I was ready to throw the screwdriver at his adorable French head. Then it clicked for me: he was trying to tell me that I was turning the screw the wrong way. And indeed I was.

I couldn’t understand what he was telling me because we didn’t speak the same language. There’s a lot of that going around, too—even among people who all speak English.

Talking’s easy. Most of us have been doing it since our first birthdays or so. And by now, we know a lot of words, and even how to string them together in complex and impressive ways. And listening—well, that’s just a matter of standing there and shutting up while the other person talks, right? So how can something that seems so simple—I talk, you listen; then you talk, I listen—go so awry? Why is it oh-so-easy for things to go oh-so-wrong?

The thing is, talking is a learned skill you picked up just by being around other people who did it a lot. Learning to effectively communicate isn’t as simple; most of our parents didn’t model it for us, and neither do most of the people with whom we’ve spent time since.

That’s how, with the best intentions in the world, many of us find ourselves shooting ourselves in the foot just when we’re trying our hardest to say something really important, or to talk about something that could be a sensitive or even a divisive issue.

  • We do it when barge into a conversation without first getting the other’s “buy-in” (“I’d like to talk about the way we’re handling our finances—is this a good time for you?”)
  • We do it when instead of listening, we make mm-hmm noises and mentally plan our rebuttal. We do it when we listen, but we don’t actually hear; instead, we’re making assumptions—often erroneous—about what the other person means (“he’s tell me he wants more alone time—that means he thinks I smell”).
  • We do it when we get hooked by the emotion of the moment and begin hurling “you” statements and absolutes (“You always…you have never….”)
  • We do it when we get so worked up that instead of sticking to the issue at hand, we start piling on every grievance, real or imagined, from the past ten years.

What would it be like if you knew how to talk to the people you love, the people at work, the people you hang with, and the people you parent in a way that meant they could really hear you? What would it be like if you knew how to stay present even in hard moments, actively listen, and come out of each interaction feeling that you had spoken your truth, been heard, and that you also had heard the truth of the other? What would it be like if because you knew how to ask for what you want, you stood a much better chance of getting it?

In my telecourse, “HUH? Brush up your communication skills so that Honesty + Understanding = Happiness,” you can find out.

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