When we are just getting to know someone, our conversations are usually centered on the world around us. We exchange facts and clichés, such as the following:
“How are you?”
“Fine. How are you?”
“Great. What’s new?”
“Not much. Beautiful day.”
“Supposed to be 80 degrees today. It says so right here in the paper.” “Oh, look at that.”
This conversation requires a very minimal level of connection or vulnerability—you could probably have it with an absolute stranger. Sadly, there are many people who camp out at the level of facts and clichés in their relationships. It’s comfortable and safe. They usually choose to do this because when they tried to graduate to the next level of intimacy in communication in the past, they got scared and hurt. They ended up in those big, long, disrespectful, “relationship killer” conversations and got so burned that they decided it was safer to retreat to communication that required no vulnerability or risk whatsoever. They use communication to pursue the goal of distance and disconnection rather than connection.
The only way you can build a heart-to-heart connection with someone is to communicate on a heart level about your feelings and needs.
This is the level where we express vulnerability and build trust. This is the level where we get in touch with the truth about who we are and how we affect people around us. Perhaps you have heard the joke about the man who goes to the doctor and complains about suffering from terrible constant gas. “But it’s the weirdest thing, doctor,” he says. “I don’t make a sound and it doesn’t smell.”The doctor looks at him and says bluntly, “Okay. Well, the first thing we are going to do is get you hearing aids. And then we are going to figure out what’s wrong with your nose.”
This is what many of us experience every day when we try to communicate. There is a lot going on around us that we don’t always pick up. Sometimes we are completely unaware of how other people are “experiencing” us.
I love to tell people about how my wife experiences the way I drive up Buckhorn Mountain on my way to Weaverville, CA.This stretch of road features superb twists and turns that are perfect for weaving in and out of traffic. The risk of plummeting hundreds of feet to your death lies only a few feet away. When I’m driving, I fly around those corners, passing every car I can overtake. It is marvelous!
My wife always has a completely different experience on these drives than I do—an experience I don’t understand. I’m a good driver, as evidenced by the fact that I have never been in an accident. Personally, I think I should have been a NASCAR driver or at least signed up for a car rally. When she lets me know that she feels scared as I’m driving, I always think, Why are you scared? You have absolutely no evidence that I’m a bad driver. You should just calm down and be like me. But as mystifying as it is, I know my wife is not like me, and I cannot make her be like me. I can’t force her to feel what I feel and know what I know. I trust her to believe the best about me, so I know that when she tells me she is scared, she is not insinuating that I am trying to scare her. She is simply telling me what she feels.
If I were to argue with Sheri’s feelings, I would devalue her. “You shouldn’t feel that way. There’s no valid reason for you to feel like that. I don’t feel like that. Change and be like me.” This thought process is as ridiculous as someone saying, “I’m hungry,” and responding, “No you’re not! I’m not hungry so you can’t be hungry.” How silly is that? But that is exactly what we do when we respond to others without taking the time to understand, appreciate, and validate their feelings.
When I value your feelings, I will not only make it safe for you to communicate them to me, but I will also listen and respond. I will invite you to go deeper and show me what it is you need, so we can move from understanding to decision-making and action.
Understanding one another’s needs is the Holy Grail of communication.
If I can find out what you need in a conversation and find out how to satisfy that need, then it changes everything! A drastic turning point in my marriage with Sheri came when she discovered (through inner healing) that she had a deep need to feel protected by me, a need she had never previously identified. Unsurprisingly, it was a need that had never been met in our relationship. It had never occurred to me that she had this need because she had been working to meet that need herself—usually by protecting herself from me.
When Sheri told me what she had discovered, I was offended. I had always felt like I was the victim and she the aggressive offender in our relationship. I blamed her for the fact that I was not courageous. In fifteen years of marriage, I had never—not once—thought it was my job to protect Sheri. She had always appeared so self-sufficient. But the Lord confronted me and told me she was right. She needed me to protect her. I listened to God and permanently changed the way I responded to her. At first, she didn’t trust me, but after a while she realized that I was going to stick it out. This took us to totally new places of vulnerability and radically changed our relationship. Her former levels of anxiety dropped dramatically and our connection strengthened exponentially—all because I can now meet this need in her.
The faster you can get to the question, “What do you need?” the faster you can start doing something about it.
Unfortunately, because many people are not used to being listened to, they don’t know what they need, or how to communicate it. They think they to have to present a solid case for someone to help them, agree with them, or change for them. For many years, Sheri was a pastor at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry and frequently had students come into her of office to deal with some issue, their emotions flying everywhere. Quietly, she would ask them, “Hey, what do you need?” This question always shocked them. “What?” they’d reply. “What is it that you need?” Sheri repeated. Then it would dawn on them. “I don’t even know what I need. Oh my gosh!” I have also found that people are usually thrown off guard when I simply show up with the question, “What do you need? Tell me so I can help you with that.” It has never crossed their mind that I would help simply because they need something. As soon as they experience it, they immediately recognize it as a practice of intimacy. They feel cared for and loved, which casts out anxiety and helps the search for the truth of what their heart needs.
You can start practicing the skills of assertive communication by paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, needs and respecting their value.
Start doing the same for other people. Check yourself when you are tempted to invalidate someone’s experience or heart. Listen to understand in a conversation—especially to understand what a person is feeling and what he or she needs. Seek healing from past experiences that have led you to fear the truth of your heart and become a passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive communicator. Be real with yourself. If you start slipping into your old styles of communication, then do what needs to be done to make things right. When you commit to becoming the best communicator you could possibly be, you commit to connection, and to being a truly powerful person. Not only will your relationship with your heart change for the better, but your relationships with others will be transformed.
PS) This is Hack #3 in my latest eBook, Communication Hacks: 3 Ways to Cultivate Healthy Communication at Home or Work. Download it free for a limited time here.
PPS) How does this "hack" land with you? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.