Many books have been written on how to influence others and how to convince others about your beliefs, values and opinions. However, whenever you attempt to persuade another, and some people go to the point of being aggressive in their communication, you are spilling the beans on the fact that you are not at all convinced by what you are saying to another! It follows that it would appear that you have not got through to yourself and your attempt to convince another mirrors an unsureness within that needs your attention.
Communication is an inner experience – a communion with self – and involves affirmation of and belief in self, an active listening and identification of feelings and thoughts and a personal ownership and resolution of all that arises. When you achieve such inner conviction, you will then speak with another, not to influence or persuade, but to reveal an aspect of yourself that is relevant to the relationship. The person’s response to what you say you will perceive as a revelation of his or her inner world – whether the response is benign or critical or aggressive or passive or oppositional.
This notion that communication is all about getting through to self runs contrary to what most people believe. Most of us have encountered parents, teachers, coaches, friends, managers who attempt to persuade us that they are right and we are wrong. As a result, we tend to be on the defensive when we are communicating, rather than being separate and taking the opportunity of either letting the other know about our life or of getting to know about the other person’s world through what he or she is saying – no matter what way that is. Obviously, when the other’s verbal behaviour is of a threatening nature, it is crucial that you are going to end the conversation and act accordingly: ‘I’m feeling threatened by your aggressive tone and I’m ending this conversation now.’ More often that not, the other person will hugely resent this and will escalate their attempts to control you, not out of any conscious intention of hurting you, but because their inner insecurity increases in the face of your mature boundary. If you allow the other person to pull you back into the verbal fray, then you have questions to ask about your own level of independence and emotional security. The reality is that there are few of us who do not have inner unresolved fears and these insecurities reveal themselves in how we communicate and how we respond to the communication of another. Anytime we ourselves become defensive or another person relates to us defensively, these are opportunities to become conscious of our fears and to find ways of resolving them.
It helps to see that when I attempt to persuade another it becomes an act of controlling rather than communicating. Equally, when I’m passive – and exercise governorship of the tongue – and follow the dictum ‘if you’re going to say anything, be sure you say nothing’ – then I’m avoiding expressing what is true of me and so communication is absent. One of the most common phenomena in relationships and, particularly, at staff meetings, is passivity, which is a considerable block to personal, interpersonal and organisational progress. However, it needs to be also seen that silence is also an unconscious (sometimes conscious) controlling mechanism, because if I say nothing then I can’t be verbally or physically attacked, humiliated, criticised, embarrassed, ridiculed or emotionally rejected. The deeper personal issue that I need to reflect upon is the absence of a deep sense of my own worth and the enduring presence of dependence on others. Until I am one with myself – in deep communion with self – I will remain defensive in my relating to others. Inevitably, the latter leads to conflict in relationships, but conflict is the ally that draws attention to inner turmoil that is calling out for resolution.
Communication then is neither right nor wrong, positive or negative; it always reveals your inner state of mind and heart whether this be secure, fearless and independent or insecure, fearful and dependent. When we are in the receiving place of defensive messages from another, we can help enormously by hearing what the other says as being totally about and, indeed, for them. Returning gently and firmly what belongs to the speaker is an act of kindness that may lead the person to engage in real as opposed to defensive communication. Do not forget what you can do for another, the other can also do for you.
Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist, Author, National and International Speaker and Director of several UCC courses including a 1-year Certificate course in Interpersonal Communication, NFQ Level 6.