Spinning Rolodex: The chaos of communication


Yes, I know what a Rolodex is. I never had to use one, but I have seen them around. For those of you who have grown up with cellphones and computerized address books, I’ll let you in on a fun device. It was a place to alphabetize contacts in what was expected to be within easy reach. You just flip to the appropriate letter and then through the cards available until you get the right one. These were mostly used in offices, so that you could cradle the phone against your shoulder and continue to talk while you searched for a phone number.

Alright, now that we’re clear, I’m moving on.

So, I’m great at listening. I will do my darndest to follow your train of thought until the very end. That’s not to say that’s it’s easy. Sometimes it requires extreme amounts of focus to keep up as people mumble through their sharing or speed through one thought after another like a verbal Nascar race.

My brain is so focused on trying to follow what you’re saying, that there usually isn’t much extra energy for a side project of thinking of responses. Sometimes, depending on the topic, the lightbulb will go off internally and there’s an immediate recognition of what is being discussed and how I can relate to it. I’m familiar with the topic, have personal experience with it, and ideas quickly form for how to respond, share, questions to ask, my own perspective to offer.

But often times, when there’s an opening in the conversation and the person is staring at me to say something, here’s what’s happening internally. My brain is spinning that Rolodex around and around. “Oh, I know this. I filed it under H, no wait it’s B. Oh come on it’s here somewhere.” My mind is opening filing cabinets, flipping through folders, trying desperately to find something relevant. There may be bits and pieces that become available in this process, but not enough to make a coherent response.

Meanwhile, my opening comes to a close. The person I’m talking to figures I have nothing to share, and they immediately start up with something else. Or, they don’t like the silence and get nervous and continue talking for that reason. Or, sometimes, that brief window was merely a courtesy and they never intended to give me a chance anyway.

I’ll continue to listen as they talk, but now my brain is fired up and it continues searching those files for information. This is a very difficult balance to maintain going forward: listening and thinking.

Oh, but what’s this? Now my brain finally found that blasted bit of information. It got filed under X. Who looks in X?

What do I do with it? It was relevant 5 to 10 minutes ago. Is it worth bringing up now? Do I interrupt the person talking so I can share? Did this person really want my opinion? I hate interrupting people because I really hate when it happens to me. So what am I supposed to do? Mostly, I end up setting it aside and forgetting about it. This was especially the case when I was in college and the intervening years.

There were moments when communication was easier:

  • One-on-one situations
  • When talking to someone I’m comfortable with
  • When the person is patient and gives me time to think and consider things
  • When discussing a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot recently so it was more familiar

What made communicating worse:

  • Being with a group of people (too many threads of conversation to keep up with)
  • Being around new people (not sure if it’s safe to share, how I will be received)
  • If I was trying to talk to a guy I thought was cute
  • Any situation where I was already nervous
  • When I felt pressured to give a quick answer

It was incredibly valuable to have someone who was patient and waited for me to compose a response. It reinforced that what I had to share was worth waiting for. That I had something important to say.

But, when people don’t give you that time and rush back to pick up their monologue, it’s easy to think the opposite, that what you have to say doesn’t really matter.

Sensory processing problems mean that your brain and nervous system aren’t relaying messages in an efficient manner. And it can impact your ability to recall information. So, rushing the process doesn’t help. The more you try to think of an answer quickly, the more that Rolodex is just spinning in circles. There are no connections being made; it’s just a spinning mess. In fact, some info cards are probably flying off.

How to improve the experience:

  • Asking direct questions can really help. It offers a focal point instead of having a very broad starting point. So instead of “How was your day?” (which has so many facets to weigh and consider, emotions to evaluate, etc) you could ask about a specific class. …. A word of caution: Absolutes cause their own problems. Asking “What’s your favorite movie?” could be tricky because it means evaluating a whole list of movies and their characteristics and judging genres and so on that it’s hard to pick one. There might be a sense of a wrong answer, even though it’s an opinion question. But asking about “one of your favorites” or “what’s a movie you really enjoy?” can lower the expectations for the answer.
  • Giving someone more time to consider a response. If you’re going around the room and wanting everyone to answer the same question, don’t put the quiet person on the spot. Start on another part of the room or somewhere in the middle. Let the person ponder the question, hear other responses to get an idea of what is acceptable.
  • Don’t leave out the quiet person altogether! If you see the mouth open and that maybe an answer is coming but someone else jumps in and takes over the discussion, please, oh please go back. “Susie, did you have something you wanted to say?” It’s incredibly frustrating to have something to contribute but then not given a chance to verbalize it.  … That was a concept I actually wrote about in a journal during sixth grade. I was joining relatives for a day trip and was excited to spend time with them. “But the only thing is that I try to say something but every time I open my mouth, they talk.” Can’t get a word in. Which can further this misconception that people don’t care about what I have to share.
  • Teach the child to stand up for himself. Parents, at some point you can teach your child: “It’s ok to say ‘I need a few minutes to think about this. Can you come back to me?’ ” Or something equally relevant. It will help empower your child, taking ownership of what will be shared. It also indicates a desire to contribute even if it takes longer, and not merely downplaying an opinion simply because it doesn’t roll off the tongue immediately.
  • The value of “It’s it important to you, it’s worth sharing.” I really struggled with thinking that what I shared had to be worthwhile to others, as if I truly had control over their reactions. So I would hold things back under the false impression of “they don’t want to hear about this” or “why would my uncle want to hear about this boy I really like.” But the truth is, friendships grow through sharing details about ourselves, our opinions, our preferences, our dreams, our fears, our goals, and all the little details in between. If you don’t share, you won’t improve those relationships. Those “friendships” become very one-sided.
  • Don’t seek perfection. This seems obvious, but it’s a hard concept to grasp. There were plenty of kids in class who blurted things out with no sense of evaluation or thought. It was impulsive. I’m not a very impulsive person, so kids who did this irritated me. I would think “You need to take time to think before you share something.” But you know what, everyone functions differently. And I’ve learned that some people actually need to share out loud and problem solve in a group setting, like they are pitching ideas. But I want to have every aspect figured out before I verbalize anything. You miss a lot of opportunities by waiting to have everything figured out. So, I’ve been working on sharing incomplete things too. Even if I feel it needs a preface of “I know this relates to what we’ve been talking about, but I don’t know how to connect it.” The more you share like this, the more comfortable it will become.
  • Being comfortable just listening. Sometimes there really isn’t anything to contribute. It doesn’t mean you’re weird or stupid or whatever. It’s ok to just listen, take in what is being discussed and not have a response. Just enjoy the company. I’ve made myself very anxious worrying about not having anything to contribute, and that’s just unnecessary.

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