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Failure to communicate

By January 2, 2009Uncategorized

This past week has given me the opportunity (not enjoyable, but then things that spur us toward growth often are not enjoyable) to revisit something I've come upon before.  How people miscommunicate is not something that we seem to understand enough about.  Or at least that's true for me.

I've noticed that, in my case, the problem stems from assuming that the other person has the same information that I do. Or a similar viewpoint.  Sometimes the disconnect is something more in my control, and sometimes it's more the other person.  But usually it's both parties.

I think I need to listen much better.  I try to listen, and I ruminate a lot on what I hear.  And I often try to read between the lines to make sure I'm getting the complete picture.  But listening seems not to be enough.  Maybe I need to ask more questions, or maybe it's something more than that.

People are guarded for all kinds of reasons.  I knew that, of course.  And that's why I try to 'read between the lines,'  but that doesn't work if the person is clever about being guarded.  And this 'cleverness' isn't even conscious.

So, what's the point of this post?  Up to now it must seem completely self-absorbed in an odd way (e.g. not enough background information whilst presenting a strong 'confessional quality.').  Okay, let me move on to the "Universal Point," with background information that's not really at the heart of my self-assessment, but will bring us to some sort of useful thought.

When I went to see my dad a few days ago I was confronted with a person who is in the last stages of Parkinsons.  He can barely walk and can't stand up without assistance.  But the most troubling limitation for him is that his mind has unraveled.  He can talk (although his voice is often weak), but he can't really talk about things that are part of a common understanding.  He lives in a semi-fantasy world, in which he sometimes recognizes the faces of those around him, but sometimes not.

One of his caretakers is very good at communicating with him, and he seems to be at ease with her. One of the other caretakers is not good at communicating with him.  At this point you might ask: how does one 'communicate well' with a person who barely recognizes what's going on around them?  

Good question!

The answer wasn't obvious to me until I saw the difference, and understood something powerful which now seems like it should be obvious. My father relies primarily on his emotions (or something other than his mind) to understand when people communicate with him.  One caretaker is patient with him and understand his struggles because she's been with him for five years.  He senses love from her, and he appreciates it.  He may not understand her words well, but he interprets them in the context of her love.

The other caretaker also has great concern for my dad, but she's new and doesn't know his background as well.  She tries to communicate with him using words, even though she knows he doesn't understand what's being said.   She tries hard to communicate, but it's just not working out as well as she would like.  My father senses her frustration, and interprets her words in that context.

So my point is that words are not the primary communication tool.  Perhaps it's love.  That, and deep understanding.

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  • Liz says:

    Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this reminder. As a teacher I know that the “energy” (an over-used word, but so apt) with which I approach potentially disruptive situations makes ALL the difference. Students really respond when I meet them with patience and calm. Despite having so much to accomplish in so short a time, I have to let go of anxiousness and any urge to try to force a resolution instantaneously. The best teachers are truly present in the moment in their one-on-one interactions with kids. As well as I understand all of that, do I always succeed in acting with calm and respect? No.

  • Dave Larsson says:

    Thanks for the story and the thought-provoking observations. You might enjoy the movie “Rory O-Shea Was Here” (which was its title in the US; elsewhere, it was evidently “Inside I’m Dancing”), because the main premise is that one of the main characters has cerebral palsy and no one can understand his speech except the other main character, who has muscular dystrophy. It’s not as glum as it sounds, it’s actually uplifting. Best of luck to you and your family.

  • Bob Kraft says:

    Thank you for sharing this Ernie. Insightful and thought-provoking. I’m sure everyone who reads your post will feel compelled to examine their own communications skills and shortcomings. I know I will.

  • Roger Young says:

    A beautiful thought and a good resolution for the New Year as well.

  • I learned this lesson from my dad’s late-stage Parkinson’s as well. He passed just six months ago. All my best to you as you have these final days with your father.

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