In yesterday’s letter, I mentioned the important concept of empathy, a concept that has been life-changing for me. Today I’d like to go a bit deeper into the practical side of empathy, with another concept that has been vital to the relationships in my life: communication.
I love that I’m writing these letters to you just as you’re beginning to learn how to communicate. As of right now, your favorite methods of communicating are waving hello and goodbye, pointing at anything and everything while saying “Dat!” (what’s that?”), and dropping food on the floor from your high chair to indicate “ok, I’m done now.”
It has become cliché to note that relationships depend on good communication. The cliché has merit to it, but few seem to think through what that means to actually implement. Of course it’s important to talk through things with those you care about, but there are more and less effective ways of doing so.
That’s where empathy comes in.
I wish I could remember where I first came across this, but I remember hearing once that every time we talk to someone, there are not one, but six different conversations going on. They are:
– What I actually said
– What I think I said
– What I think you heard
– What you think you heard
– What you think I said
– What you actually heard
It never ceases to amaze me how very different the content of these six conversations can be. When your mom and I are talking, I sometimes think that I’m being perfectly clear in what I’m saying, and she is equally clear that she’s hearing something totally different. And it’s not that either of us are saying or doing the wrong thing in those moments – it’s that we’re both failing to communicate well . . . failing to empathize to the point where we can truly reconcile what we’re saying with what the other person is hearing.
There are two things I’ve found that are at the heart of good communication. Empathy is at the heart of both of them.
Often the most difficult conversations I have – whether with your mom, or your brother, or anyone else I talk with – are when subjectivity and interpretation creep in. If someone is telling me something, and I assume I know what they mean or where they’re going, it can introduce ambiguity and cause us to end up on wildly different pages even as we think we understand one another perfectly.
As an editor, it’s my job to eliminate ambiguities in the writings of others on a daily basis. I just wish I was as capable of eliminating them in my own conversation.
The rules that guide where to place a comma in your sentence or when it’s acceptable to write in passive voice are designed, first and foremost, to eliminate ambiguity. Because in professional writing – as in relational conversation – ambiguity can completely change the meaning of what is being said, and what is being heard. In a written work, it can change the meaning of the words on the page. And in conversation it can lead to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and hurt, because there are times that what I think I said and what you think you heard are two wildly different things.
If you must assume, assume the best
Sometimes an assumption is unavoidable . . . sometimes when you’re in conversation with someone their motivations are unclear (even to themselves), or the circumstances around the conversation mean that they don’t have time to explain. When ambiguity is necessary – when you are forced to assume something about what someone says, or why they’re saying it – give them the benefit of the doubt.
Usually, if you assume that the person is saying what they’re saying out of the best of intentions, and does not mean to be hurtful or confusing or inconsiderate, you’ll be right.
That’s not to say that their words aren’t hurtful, or confusing, or inconsiderate. But empathizing with the place those words are coming from – assuming the best of the one with whom you’re conversing – builds relationship even in those times, because it gives you a chance to see the heart behind the hurt, when you otherwise wouldn’t if you reacted solely to the words themselves.
Remember yesterday when I wrote that empathy means “seeing people, not groups?” This is a related idea, because even a single person is something of a “group” . . . specifically, the group of different interactions you’ve had with them, in different circumstances, different moods, different settings, and at different times.
Giving someone the benefit of the doubt means hearing who they are right now . . . not who they were the last time you argued with them, or the last time they did something that annoyed you, or all the times before when you’ve had similar conversations to the one you’re having with them now. Leave all that baggage behind and start fresh. Don’t assume that you know what this conversation is, or where it’s going, or why.
Assume the very best.
Try to do this in the full knowledge that sometimes that assumption will turn out to be unwarranted. Sometimes, the person across from you in conversation is not, in fact, operating out of their best self. Sometimes people are deliberately mean-spirited or hurtful or manipulative. But in those moments, if they see you giving them the benefit of the doubt even when it is undeserved, that simple act can turn aside even their ill intentions and present an opportunity to foster relationship that might otherwise never have existed.
That won’t always be the case. But the times when it is will be worth it. Perhaps the reason they use those tactics is a defense mechanism because they’ve been hurt before. Perhaps that’s the only conversation method they’ve ever known because it’s what they grew up with. Perhaps you just happened to catch them at a really bad time. And perhaps your simple act of kindness in that moment can benefit you both.
My dear Fiona, I know there will be times in our life together that miscommunication occurs. That’s just a fact of life for flawed human beings with only our less-than-perfect languages to use for communication purposes. Just know – always – that communication is important to me, and so when you and I just don’t see eye to eye . . . when we fail to understand or empathize with one another, my first and foremost goal is to talk it through with you.
Sometimes I’ll fail. Sometimes you will, too. But I hope that we can aspire together to always be getting better and better at expressing ourselves to one another, empathizing with one another, and seeing one another’s best selves as we walk through life together.