Your cell phone rings. You answer. The conversation begins. It could be about almost anything. You listen. You talk. Communication 101. You say goodbye, and I turn to you and say, “How present were you with that person during the conversation?” You insist that you were completely present and full engaged.
We'd like to believe we are fully present in all of our conversations. In reality, how we communicate is largely automatic. Instead of listening, we react. Our brain has been calibrated to tune into specific words, intonation, and body language. Then we filter. Every experience we have had up until now has taught us what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Biases make our brains functioning more efficient.
Lately, I’ve been trying to pay attention to the pace of conversations on the phone. I started observing this after a very memorable conversation. The person on the other end of the phone talked so fast that by the end of the conversation I noticed that my pace had significantly increased. I was syncing up with them over the phone. Over time, as I continued to pay attention, I began to notice a pattern. If the other person was talking quickly, I tended to speed up. If the other person was talking slowly, I tended to slow down. It then occurred to me that perhaps the other person was doing the same thing I was doing. (I recognize that if you are reading this blog, it may be awkward the next time we talk on the phone.)
It is a challenge to not go along with the automatic and to work at self-regulating one's interactions with another. I can get caught up in the emotional triggers of a conversation and be unaware of how automatic the conversation has become. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with doing the automatic thing, when anxiety increase, doing what’s automatic begins to create problems in the relationship.
I often come back to words in my tradition from Paul, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2 CEB).
A mature leader is aware of their automatic tendencies and makes an effort to engage their best thinking. They learn the basic patterns of the family emotional process and their part in the process. They come up with a plan to do their part differently. They anticipate how others will respond and how they will respond to them, all the while working to tone down any anxiety that may be bubbling up inside. They avoid retreating from others or telling others what to do. They focus on communicating what is important to them. This is one way to think about differentiation of self.
So, the next time you are having a conversation with someone, pay attention to how the other is responding to you. Pay attention to how you are responding to the other. In what way are you syncing up and in what ways are you just reacting? The best place to practice is on your family because, well, they’re your family after all. Learning to regulate one’s automatic, emotional responses and thinking about how to communicate your best possible self is at the heart of good communication.