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Talk to Me

The Communication Crisis

If only I'd thought of the right words 
I could have held on to your heart - Pictures of You: The Cure

Have you noticed how alarmed some people sound when the phone rings? It’s as if our phones have turned into red rotary telephones like the ones in James Bond. If the phone rings, it must be bad! The heightened alert doesn’t just apply to phone calls. It seems that attempts to communicate today are often met with skepticism, intolerance, suspicion and even fear. Stopping a stranger to ask directions or knocking on someone’s door unannounced can all solicit such reactions.

How, I wonder, have we come to this? Communication has always been a challenge. Coming from England, it was considered rude to share how you felt. It’s often easier to avoid the complexities of human interaction; the COVID pandemic accelerated what began with high-tech. When I visited a college recently, it was eerily empty despite the beautiful weather. An administrator told me the campus is always quiet now as most students prefer to study online.

We are fully aware, of course, of the importance of human connection to our wellbeing. The disastrous consequences of communication are the stuff of great tragic literature. In Shakespeare’s Othello and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day if the protagonists were to speak to one another truthfully, tragedy would be avoided.

So why are we increasingly choosing to limit interaction when the headlines are filled with sad stories about our mental health and loneliness? There are many reasons. Electronics are efficient and practical. Couple this with residual pandemic habits, laziness, constant distraction and instant online gratification, it’s now habitual. Ironically we live in a world of instant communication and fractured connection.

Why is it so hard to talk to one another? We have always been somewhat afraid to speak our truth because we fear the consequences. Our world can change on a dime once we’ve spoken. The stakes can be high; words once spoken can never be taken back. We often choose to stay safe instead of being true and clear in our communication.

Today these fears are heightened. With the increase in hyper-sensitivity, self-righteousness and judgment, human interaction may open one to negative opinions, experience acute embarrassment and, ironically, be rejected.

The consequences are numerous. The less we connect the more we misunderstand one another, the more fearful we become. An example is the impact of texting on relationships. In my coaching practice, I see suffering caused by the interpretation of messages. “What did he mean by that?” One makes assumptions concerning the sender’s intention as communication blanks are imagined, even to assuming a tone of voice that may be unintended.

This encourages carelessness and unkindness. There’s nothing new, for instance, about dropping one’s relationship with a person. It’s harder to have that conversation on a phone call. Taking the easy route of “ghosting” is now common practice. There’s no accountability, no opportunity to work things out, no emotional growth and the effects can be devastating. The not knowing can haunt some for years.

How can we improve our communication? I believe the magic of music provides a clue. Google song lyrics contain “talk to me’”. It’s no coincidence there are almost four hundred thousand lyrics that match. Music has always been our universal language because in the words of President Barack Obama, “Music is easier to understand than language. It can be understood right away.” Communication through music is instant and pure because it speaks directly to our feelings, to our hearts and souls. It needs no analysis.

To forge meaningful relationships we need to connect with an open heart and mind, to pay attention to the effect we have on others. Be clear in your communication and never make assumptions for as George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Remember, we have the powerful benefits of non-verbal communication when we meet in person. A smile can mean more than a hundred text messages. Interactions either feel right or need further exploration. Intentions are better understood, misunderstandings care tackled and spontaneity can flourish.

How we communicate matters. Every time we do so, we can choose to contribute to our well-being and the greater good. Heartfelt communication creates a comfortable layer of trust in which we all operate more effectively and productively. Trust not fear is a great gift to share to help heal today’s fractured world.