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Yeah, I’m a jerk.

So are you. So is everyone else. No, I’m not kidding, but I also don’t mean we’re all horrible people. I mean that communication is hard. Harder than we sometimes think.

If you didn’t know this about me already, Communication is IMPORTANT to me. This is one of my passions. How people communicate. Where communication fails. Why communication fails. What someone really meant, and what the listener heard instead. I am not always the most eloquent with words, but my passion is to understand, and spread that understanding.

So, why are we all jerks? Because we have feelings, and we’re all sometimes thoughtless with words, or once in a while fail to realize the effect our words will have on someone else.

If you are someone I consider a friend of mine, that means that I care about you. I care what happens to you. I care about your opinions: of me, and probably other things as well. I care about your feelings. Which means that inevitably, you’re going to say something that’s going to hit a nerve somewhere, and leave me in tears. Jerks. I’ll be in tears because I care. Because YOU matter to ME. Assuming you care about me too, chances are, the same thing will happen in reverse sometime. I’m a jerk.

There’s a lot of ways things can go at this point. Whoever was hurt, we can choose to say so, or we can choose to not say so. Whoever said something hurtful can continue to be oblivious, or we might notice something. Let’s assume I’m oblivious, and you tell me.

One of the basic principles of effective communication is that it requires feedback. One-way communication, where for instance, I say something, but am unwilling to listen to any responses, is not usually effective.

To ensure effective communication, when I say something, I need to make sure I am understood. Which means, I ought to be watching for both verbal and non-verbal cues in an effort to determine if I was understood correctly. Especially me, folks. I worry about this ALL THE TIME. As a parent, it’s especially worrisome. I’ll often ask my son to tell me in his own words what he thinks I just said so I can make sure he didn’t take it in completely the wrong way. Repeat, until I’m sure that what I was trying to express was successfully expressed.

It also means that if I’m on the other side of communication, and I’m hearing something, I’m under a burden to try and make sure that I understood. I try to ask questions, rather than making assumptions. I repeat things in my own words to see if I’ve got it correctly. I fear sometimes that it makes me a pest, but I hate being in a conversation where the other person assumes I will instantly understand what they mean and gets annoyed when I ask questions or don’t immediately grasp what they really meant to say.

Communication, it’s hard. Different backgrounds, different experiences. Words have meanings to individuals that go far beyond the dictionary definitions of those words. We associate words and phrases with people, with places, with experiences, with memories. It kind of makes the complete meaning of any given word or phrase unique to each of us.

So, I hurt you, and you told me. This can still go several ways. I can brush you off, or I can listen and apologize. Let’s assume that I listen, and I apologize. Because well, if I brush you off I’m upgrading from jerk to bastard or maybe even abuser and at that point, you should just get me out of your life. Then, I can either be sincere or not. If I’m sincere, I need to alter my behavior to try and make sure I don’t hurt you anymore. If I can’t do that, then… again, just walk away. Whether I mean to hurt you or not doesn’t matter if I don’t stop doing it, and a relationship of any sort where you are continually hurt is not a good relationship.

I have also been on the side of someone who hurts unintentionally where the other person simply assumes malicious intent and begins hurting me back. I’ve been in the position where there was something I felt bad about, was in tears about, agonized over… and eventually I became the one who was being continually hurt while being given no voice or apology. If you’re never going to forgive me for one slip and are going to continually make me feel like crap for it, I need to get you out of my life. If I hurt you, but you won’t talk to me about it at all, or believe me when I tell you that I was hurt by you as well, then I need to get you out of my life. If you believe you’ve never said anything that could hurt me, but I’m deliberately out to hurt you, we really really shouldn’t be friends. It doesn’t even matter if it’s true or not. If you believe it, either it’s true and I’m deliberately hurting you, or it isn’t true, and your belief is hurting me. We’re all jerks, and we all hurt one another sometimes. Me, and you too. We have to both be willing to admit that we’re capable of hurting and being hurt.

So what’s the conclusion? Effective communication and good relationships require cooperation from two people. There’s so many ways it can go wrong. I’m a jerk, you’re a jerk… we’re all jerks. We’re all under the burden of being willing to admit that we may not have been as clear as we thought, and hurt someone in the process. We’re all under the burden of being willing to admit we may have misunderstood. We’re all under the burden of trying to adjust our behavior so we can stop hurting the people around us. Me, and you too. Communication isn’t easy, and neither are relationships.

Here’s hoping we succeed at this at least as often as we fail.

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  1. JMBL : Learning curve… | October 2, 2010 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    [...] to give feedback and have that listened to and responded to. Yes, response is crucial. See my last post. Effective communication requires feedback. If I say something and get no response, I don’t [...]

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