You & Your Family

The confusing art of communication

Jul 2013    

THESE DAYS, it is becoming harder to know exactly what people mean when they communicate. An illustration of this was when a property agent proudly pointed out the special “pocket view” of the apartment we were viewing. It was one of the assets and selling points for that apartment. Try as I might, it was difficult to experience this view. It was then that I realised a “pocket view” meant a limited or an obscured view.

The phrase went far beyond the proverb of “making a virtue out of a necessity” and elevated it to an art form. I say “art form”, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What appears as cluttered housing to one is clustered housing to another.

As a Family and Marital Therapist, paying attention to what is said and taking care in communicating clearly are important aspects of my work. Oftentimes, clients come with their declared problems as the breakdown in communication. Signs of this are when parties stop openly communicating or their communication draws an unexpected hostile response.

You may have noticed I said “parties stop openly communicating”, and in doing so, I want to also say that it is impossible to not communicate. Silence is also a form of communication. But it is an unclear form as it could mean a whole host of things.

An exasperated husband tired of the continuous rounds of arguments over the slightest thing decided to be silent and withdrawn. His wife interpreted her husband’s action as a form of retaliation and giving her the silent treatment. As she looked forward all day to his return from work, she found it especially hurtful that he ignored her needs.

On the other hand, the husband took this approach with a totally different purpose in mind. He wanted to stop their arguments from escalating further. He had experienced himself becoming violent and had broken things in the house to vent his anger. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned silence fuelled more conflict. Had they attempted to communicate more openly, perhaps they could have avoided this added grief.

Another example of how a lack of open communication can keep people apart was a case I was consulted about recently. It involved a teenager who was placed in a Girls’ Home for her protection. She was deemed by the authorities to be in Moral Danger. This meant that she was at risk of being sexually exploited by others.

Her family was also assessed to be unable to control her as she ran away from home several times. These circumstances are common with many known cases, but in this situation, the girl came from a well-to-do family of professionals and she herself was a well-performing student from a good school.

After several months of stay, the Welfare Officers began the process of preparing her for her eventual return to her family. The girl surprised everyone by saying that she was not ready to go home. When asked why, she again surprised us by saying that there were too many rules at home. The irony was that she found the restrictive environment in the Girls’ Home more acceptable than the restrictions placed on her at her family’s home. This view was strenuously denied by family members.

After some probing, the deeper message was that she felt she could not meet the expectations of her family, so instead of disappointing them, she would rather not go home. What was initially understood as her continued defiance and rejection of her family was really actions borne out of her deep sense of insecurity and hurts from past rejection from her family. I wondered: What made it so hard for her to tell her family these feelings? And also, what did the family do that made them appear to be people that were so difficult to appease?

On the topic of communicating clearly, the Bible reminds us of two important principles. This is encapsulated in the phrase “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). The first principle is to be truthful. We are not to be deceitful or fearful to speak the truth. The second is to have an attitude of valuing the person to whom you are addressing. Speaking truthfully is not permission to be blunt and hurtful.

For communication to be effective, it requires another very important ingredient. It requires a person to listen at the other end. Not pretending to listen or listening simply to find ways to counter-attack, but listening intently. The Chinese character for the English word “listen” contains the symbols that are associated with the eye, ear, and heart. It implies giving one your undivided attention.

Therefore to truly listen to someone, it involves listening not only with one’s ears, but also observing the non-verbal aspect of the message communicated. To do this effectively, we give the speaker our undivided attention and a heart that is open to understanding. Perhaps if we put these ideas to practice, our communication will not be so confusing.

Benny Bong is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, is a family and marital therapist.

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