It’s about a hundred degrees below zero, as my daughter and I get out of the car at her preschool on a winter Wednesday morning. She grabs my hand, I look at her, and I say, “Let’s run into the warm building!”
She won’t budge.
She looks at me like I’m crazy.
“That’s not a building,” she says in a severe teacherly tone, as if she’s the one who’s almost forty and I’m the one who’s just getting started.
I’ve already lost feeling in my toes and I’m pretty sure the skin on my face will never be the same, but I’m curious about how her little brain works, so instead of arguing and pulling her along like a fish on a line, I ask, “If that’s not a building, what is it?”
“Daddy,” she says, “that’s not a building; that’s a school.”
Now all feeling is gone from my fingers, too, but my curiosity gets the best of me again.
“So, what is a building?”
A lopsided smile appears on her face. She doesn’t say, “Duh,” but it’s implied. “Daddy, a building is a place you go to work.”
Then she drags me inside like a fish on a line.
Words matter. But they mean something different to each of us. Which can be a small problem in a parking lot, but a much bigger problem in a marriage or partnership or friendship or any meaningful relationship of any kind.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: communication isn’t terribly complicated. There are a few basic rules: one speaker and one listener at all times; the speaker’s job is to avoid blame and to focus on expressing his or her own experience; the listener’s job is to listen closely and to paraphrase what was said to confirm it was heard accurately; and partners should share the floor equally over the course of a conversation.
Communication is simple, but the words we communicate are not.
For instance, if you tell me you’re sad, I can be a good listener by reflecting back to you that you are feeling sad, but that accomplishes very little. Because I know what sad means to me, but I don’t know what sad means to you. To me, sad means lonely and disconnected from the people around me. It means I work harder and bottle up my feelings. To you, sad might mean you are in despair about your future, can’t get out of bed, and you’re eating chocolate like it could save your life.
We assume we know what someone means when they use a particular word. We project our own definition onto it. We assume their intention in using it is the same as ours would be. But if we aren’t curious about what certain key words mean to certain key people in our life, we can easily end up having two entirely different conversations, while assuming we’re talking about the same thing.
Many years ago I was working with a couple in conflict about a television. He wanted to add a television to the living room. She didn’t. I worked hard to facilitate the discussion and shed light upon any underlying issues interfering with the communication. As I was listening to them debate, something dawned on me, and I became curious:
I asked her, “Which room do you mean when you say ‘living room’?”
“I mean the living room,” she replied.
“Yes,” I said, “but can you describe it?”
“It’s the room next to the kitchen, with the bookshelves and the fireplace.” She didn’t say, “Duh,” but it was implied.
I looked at him.
He looked back at me, an epiphany dawning upon his face. Then he looked at his wife and said, “When I say ‘living room,’ I mean the room in the basement with the ping pong table.”
“Oh.” she said. “That’s the family room. I don’t care if you put three televisions in there.”
Curiosity may kill the cat, but it can save our relationships.
Good communication is about following the rules of engagement. But curious communication is about preserving and cultivating attentiveness within a relationship. Curious communication is hard, because we have to slow down. We have to forsake results and complicate the problem for a little while. We have to stop skating on the surface and fall into the depths. We have to put down our agendas, set aside our expectations, and put our certainty in check. We have to let go of the ego within us that wants attention, and we have to settle into the soul within us that knows how to give attention.
“What do you mean by that?”
The question can be asked defensively or curiously. Asking it defensively can kill the relationship, and most relationships don’t have nine lives. But asking it curiously can save the relationship.
You might find out a building is a place you go to work. You might find out a living room is actually a family room. You might find out what sad means.
You might even find out what love means.
One curious word at a time.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.