I Can’t Hear You

by Mark Walstrom

When I was a child there was the usual teasing between students on the school playground. One day, when in third grade, I happened to notice two of my classmates engaged in verbal jostling. Ray was teasing Carolyn about the hat she was wearing. Before long the teasing escalated into a rapid-fire exchange of insults. Just when Ray seemed to be delivering the decisive blow Carolyn put her hands over her ears, stuck her face within inches of Ray’s and repeatedly shouted as loud as she could, “I can’t hear you!” It was a sight to behold. Ray back-peddling as fast as he could with Carolyn in hot pursuit until finally Ray turned and ran away. Carolyn was the obvious winner.

Some days, as I facilitate a marital therapy session, overhear a family conversation at the table next to me at a restaurant, or scan the television sitcoms, I wonder if we’ve progressed in our ability to communicate with each other much past the approach that Ray and Carolyn utilized.

Most of us, it seems, grew up learning how to monologue, diatribe, or debate instead of communicate effectively. We either filibuster each other into exhaustion, not really saying much of anything, or cut and run any time the discussion gets too personal. We prepare our calculated responses in our heads well before the other person has finished speaking. Conversation turns into a match of wits and endurance. Our agenda is firmly in place and we go to battle defending and attacking until there is a winner and a loser. Rarely do we really hear what the other person is saying. Poor communication doesn’t just afflict married couples, it drives a wedge between parents and children, neighbors, co-workers, health practitioners and their patients, and countries.

In observing myself, the couples I work with in marital therapy, and the public in general, I’ve concluded there are nine primary conditioned responses that make effective communication difficult, if not impossible: dissing, posturing, strategizing, fixing, projecting, criticizing, reacting, defending, and fixating.

Dis is actually a prefix not a word. Webster’s dictionary defines dis as to deprive or exclude. Of course there are literally hundreds of ways in which we dis each other. The most common dissing seems to be discounting, dismissing, disregarding and disrespecting. Regardless of how we dis others the results are always the same — disconnection, discord, and disharmony.

Posturing can be verbal or non-verbal. The verbal variety involves a definite attitude as well as actions that are intended for effect, similar to what you would typically see between lawyers in a courtroom. Non-verbal posturing includes, but is not limited to, body positions and theatrical expressions such as crossing the arms and legs, turning to the side, rolling the eyes, sighing, and a variety of contorted facial expressions for the purpose of sending a very direct message to the talker: “I’m not going to listen anymore to your rubbish.”

Strategizing is similar to posturing but is more sophisticated, akin to a game of chess. Here we actually make a mental action plan of our moves. They are well thought out and the goal is to take out the “opponent” with precision hits.

Fixing comes from the belief that I know what you need more than you know what you need. Fixers want to make things right as soon as possible so they don’t have to watch the other person experience their pain. They also like to fix others as a way of showing the world “aren’t I great!”

Projection refers to the unconscious transfer of feelings to external objects or persons. In other words, we blame something or somebody for our anger, hurt, etc. Occasionally projection is subtle, most often though it is like a laser-guided missile. It helps to remember the saying, “Don’t kill the messenger.”

Criticism is another form of projection. We become judge, jury, and executioner against the accused. It helps to ask ourselves the question, “What is going on inside me right now that makes me want to go off on somebody else?” There is nothing constructive about belittling, attacking, and condemning another person.

Reactivity, whether emotionally, verbally, or physically, seems to come from the belief (subconscious albeit) “if I react strong enough then this person will stop whatever they are doing or saying.” You know the scene; the violent man, the hysterical woman, the screaming kid. That’s the extreme; usually the reaction is a level or two below that but still just as effective.

Defending happens when we can’t stand to hear somebody else tell us the low down truth about something we can’t bear to admit. This tactic seems to come into play when our accountability has gone out the window.

Fixation paralyzes communication when we have an obsessive preoccupation with the person or the problem instead of the solution.

The overall effect of these tactics is the same. I can’t hear you and you can’t hear me.

Effective dialogue, it seems, is less about communication skills and more about being fully present in the moment. When I’m able to stay connected to myself in the moment it is easier to connect with others in a meaningful way. Through that connection with myself I am aware of my thoughts, feelings, and reactions. I can experience my reactivity when it happens and choose not to respond in a disconnecting manner. Instead, I can accept responsibility for my feelings and listen deeply to the other person as though what they have to say really matters. Genuine understanding, and caring can then emerge. When two people can truly say, “I hear you,” that’s when intimacy is possible.

Mark Walstrom is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He can be contacted at (616) 222-9857.