Skills for Bridging the Interpersonal Gap
I wish I had some way to make a bridge from man to man...Man is all we've got.
Cross Daman in Richard Wright's Outsider
COMMUNICATION: HUMANITY'S SUPREME ACHIEVEMENT
When one person communicates to another through the medium of language something takes place between them that is found nowhere else in nature. This ability to turn meaningless grunts into spoken and written words constitutes humanity's most important distinction. Language has made possible the development of those characteristics that differentiate Homo sapiens from all other creatures. No wonder the German philosopher Karl Jaspers claims, "Man's supreme achievement in the world is communication from personality to personality."
THE INEFFECTIVENESS OF MOST COMMUNICATION
Although interpersonal communication is humanity's greatest accomplishment, the average person does not communicate well. One of the ironies of modern civilization is that, though mechanical means of communication have been developed beyond the wildest flight of the imagination, people often find it difficult to communicate face-to-face. In this age of technological marvels we can bounce messages off the moon and land space probes on Mars, but we find it difficult to relate to those we love.
I have become increasingly aware of the inadequacy of most communication. In our society it is rare for persons to share what really matters -- the tender, shy, reluctant feelings, the sensitive, fragile, intense disclosures. It is equally rare for persons to listen intently enough to really understand what another is saying. Sometimes people fix their gaze on a friend who is talking and allow their minds to wander off to other matters. Sometimes, while the friend speaks, they pretend to listen but are merely marking time, formulating what they will say as soon as they discover a way to begin talking. Nathan Miller caustically remarked that "conversation in the United States is a competitive exercise in which the first person to draw a breath is declared the listener."
Ineffective communication causes an interpersonal gap that is experienced in all facets of life and in all sectors of society. Loneliness, family problems, vocational incompetence and dissatisfaction, psychological stress, physical illness, and even death result when communication breaks down. In addition to the personal frustration and the heartache resulting from it, the interpersonal gap is now one of the major social problems of our troubled society.
THE ACHE OF LONELINESS
Many people today yearn for warm, positive, meaningful relatedness to others, but seem unable to experience it. The psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan put it this way:
The deepest problem of people is loneliness, isolation, and difficulty of self-esteem in our society. Whereas the problem in Freud's early decades was sexual repression, and the chief problem in the early thirties, when Karen Homey wrote, was disguised hostility, today it is loneliness.
There are two kinds of aloneness. Solitude can be a creative, joyous, full aloneness. But loneliness is a painful, dead, empty aloneness. Loneliness is being acutely aware of one's isolation and alienation from others. As David Riesman pointed out, when one is not vitally in touch with oneself or others, loneliness can occur even in the midst of a crowd.
"Loneliness" -- the sound of the word conveys some of the heartache associated with it. Try saying the word aloud several times in a sorrowful voice: "Loneliness...loneliness...loneliness..." The very word has a melancholy ring to it. It represents much pain for many people.
Several reasons have been given for the increased ache of loneliness in modern times. Materialism (finding one's solace in things rather than in people), the mobility of people, uprootedness of families and the bureaucratic structure of organizations -- these are just a few. I am convinced that another major cause of this interpersonal gap, and the one that may be easiest to rectify, is inadequate methods of interpersonal communication.
SO MUCH LOST LOVE
Unfortunately, the most intense loneliness today is often found in the family where communication is breaking down or is in a shambles. Marriage, the most complicated of human relationships, cannot flourish without effective communication. Couples hoping to establish an enriching marriage often lack the needed relational skills and end up living parallel lives in a marriage without intimacy. The often-quoted words of the poet T. S. Eliot describe what may be a typical family:
Two people who know they do not understand each other, Breeding children whom they do not understand And who will never understand them.
Proximity without intimacy is inevitably destructive. When communication is blocked, love's energy turns to resentment and hostility. Frequent bickering, withering sarcasm, repetitious criticism, or an icy retreat into silence and sexual unresponsiveness result. One woman, after describing her family's dysfunctional patterns of communication said, "I live in a psychological slum, not a home."
As most parents can attest, it is no easy thing to raise children today. Virginia Satir, a leader in the family therapy field, writes:
Parents teach in the toughest school in the world -- The School for Making People. You are the board of education, the principal, the classroom teacher, and the janitor....You are expected to be experts on all subjects pertaining to life and living....There are few schools to train you for your job, and there is no general agreement on the curriculum. You have to make it up yourself. Your school has no holidays, no vacations, no unions, no automatic promotions or pay raises. You are on duty or at least on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for at least 18 years for each child you have. Besides that, you have to contend with an administration that has two leaders or bosses, whichever the case may be -- and you know the traps two bosses can get into with each other. Within this context you carry on your people-making. I regard this as the hardest, most complicated, anxiety-ridden, sweat and blood producing job in the world.
Healthy communication is vitally important in raising a family. For couples who have competence in communication skills, parenthood can be one of the most rewarding and joyous experiences of their lifetime. When parents have not mastered skills for accurate, congruent communication, the resulting anguish, alienation, and loneliness for parents and children alike can be devastating.
Readers of Ann Landers's advice column were shocked when they read that 70 percent of the people responding to her survey said they were sorry they had children. Though her sample was not a true cross-section of the population, and though Landers admitted that readers with negative feelings had a stronger compulsion to respond than those with positive feelings, there was considerable evidence to support her survey's general results. Dr. Harcharan Sehdev, Director of the Children's Division of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, said, "The Landers letters appear to reflect the general changing trends and opinions of family systems and the place of children in our homes and society."
Communication is the lifeblood of every relationship. When open, clear, sensitive communication takes place, the relationship is nurtured. When communication is guarded, hostile, or ineffective, the relationship falters. When the communication flow is largely obstructed, the relationship quickly deteriorates and ultimately dies. Where communication skills are lacking, there is so much lost love -- between spouses, lovers, friends, parents and children. For satisfying relationships, it is essential to discover methods that will help us to at least partially bridge the interpersonal gaps that separate us from others.
A KEY TO SUCCESS AT WORK
Eighty percent of the people who fail at work do so for one reason: they do not relate well to other people. One's productivity as a supervisor or manager, nurse or secretary, mental health worker or janitor, laborer, attorney, physician, clerk, or minister is greatly enhanced by the ability to communicate well. In fact, it is difficult to think of a single job in which communication is unimportant.