So, previously on the blog I’ve described some of the internal struggle with communication, the spinning Rolodex in search of information, in search of something worthwhile to share.
But there are other external factors that impact communication.
Perhaps I’m over-analyzing a particular encounter I had in high school. Perhaps I’m remembering it wrong. It’s entirely possible. I honestly don’t think those details are the thing to focus on, though, because the feeling I had afterward are what have stayed with me for so long.
I was in the school cafeteria, waiting for the morning bell to ring so that I could go to my locker and get ready for class. And I was talking to another girl. She was describing a concert she had been to over the weekend.
Internally I was very excited. I had been to at least two concerts at this point. This was a topic I could relate to. This was something I’d had personal experience with. And to show that I could relate, I shared some about one of the concerts I’d attended.
I remember thinking that the more I talked, the more this girl’s eyes got smaller and smaller. And that her happiness seemed to diminish.
I walked away from the encounter knowing that there’s a difference between showing that you can relate to someone and completely taking over the conversation. I had hijacked the conversation, robbing her of the opportunity to share what she had experienced. I had made it about myself.
This girl was a fellow introvert, and that just made this realization even worse. It’s hard enough to get a chance to share when you’re around others who constantly dominate the conversation. But when you’re opening up to someone who is supposed to understand how limited the speaking opportunities are .. well … it felt like I had screwed up in a big way.
If you’re frequently interrupted, it reinforces the idea that what you have to say isn’t as important. I wondered if I had reinforced that concept for this girl. Yes there is a point where you need to be assertive and stand your ground, but that’s not always easy to do.
I don’t have a magic formula for how time should be divided up between talking and listening. I wish I did. But this moment really made me aware of the importance of listening, even though I also struggled with the idea that my thoughts and opinions were just as worthwhile.
It’s incredibly difficult to equally divide your time with someone, taking turns to talk and listen. But I’ve come to further appreciate those opportunities when there is more of a balance. It may be unfair to silently dare the other person to push and prod me to share, a passive way of jumping in. Yet, sometimes I feel like I have to lay down this silent challenge for them to stop talking and give me time to form a response because I don’t usually feel comfortable with cutting someone else off.
When they do give me a chance, it’s such a relief! It’s a huge nod of affirmation that I’m important, too. That they are interested. I often need that encouragement.
I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern when catching up with a friend after several months apart. It may be that the first part of our time together the other person shares and I’m listening, asking a few questions for further clarification. I’m making eye contact, nodding along and reacting appropriately to whatever is being shared. And then, once all has been shared, things switch up and it’s my turn to talk. It works best when there’s a direct acknowledgment that speaking roles have changed, even as simple as “Ok your turn. What’s going on in your life?”
This isn’t to say there aren’t some tangents that form when either of us are in sharing mode. They do crop up and we ride them out, but then we’re able to go back to where we were; whoever was guiding the discussion picks up the reins again.
Another factors: Trust and attention
As one of these individuals who has trouble opening up, I need to know that I can trust the person who is listening. I need to know that they are interested and will be responsive. So I wait while people shuffle through files and other tasks before talking. You might say you can multitask, but I’ve generally found that to be untrue. I need to be able to see in your eyes that you aren’t drifting away, thinking of something else.
I often feel like an idiot standing near my boss at work, waiting for her to finish typing something and turning to face me. But I’d rather have her attention instead of beginning to talk and needing to start over because she didn’t really hear the beginning.
It’s hard to gauge this kind of trust and attention in public and group situations. Is someone asking a question to be polite, or do they really want an honest answer? I’m only going to feel comfortable giving a real answer if I get the impression the person on the other end wants such a response. You can offer clues in your body language to show that you’re interested. Some examples include eye contact, smiling, being at attention versus looking around to other people.
I’m bad with small talk. A lot of those fluffy conversations seem so pointless and meaningless. But they’re valuable for building relationships and breaking the ice, for establishing a sense of familiarity and trust. The small talk is an essential element in communication. But I hate it. I’d much rather dive into something with more purpose than “Did you see that episode of (fill-in-the-blank-guilty-pleasure-show)?” But sometimes you have to establish common ground.
I’m not going to open up to just anyone. I need to feel like I won’t be unfairly judged or misjudged. I need time to feel out my surroundings and figure out if someone is trustworthy. It happens in many different ways. But you definitely built up trust by allowing me to share without being interrupted. The more likely it is that you’ll interrupt me when I’m trying to share, the less I want to share. Even if you try to nudge me with questions. Sometimes I feel like the questions are a feeble attempt to show interest when you’re really eager to keep talking.