“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~George Bernard Shaw
We’re living in a polarized world. Just look at the comment sections on social media platforms and you’ll understand exactly what I mean: Individuals holding opposing views are verbally fighting against one another to prove themselves right and others wrong.
Here are a few examples: capitalists vs socialists, theists vs atheists, climate alarmists vs climate deniers, fruitarians vs carnivores, pro-life vs pro-choice. Their goal is to hurt, belittle and win over those belonging to the opposing group. But the result is always the same: nobody wins, and everyone loses. People waste their time spilling hate over others, only to find themselves further enraged and misunderstood, which leads to more hate-spilling. Constantly adding fuel to fire, the heated debate never ends.
In this article, I’d like to shed some light on the core reasons behind the polarizing conversations that are all over the place, and offer some insights on how to effectively communicate without resorting to hate and the war mentality that so many of us are accustomed to.
The Trap of Being Right
Most fights in conversations start when we label ourselves as right and others as wrong. In other words, they start from judgment.
When we judge others, we can’t see them as they truly are. To be more precise, we see them as less than they are. That’s because by judging them we dehumanize them, and so we lose or considerably reduce our empathy towards them. As a result, we find no problem attacking them. Yet in reality we only attack a projection of our own minds.
The need to prove others wrong usually comes from the egoistic desire to feel that we’re on the right side of things (and hence “better” than others). This desire arises from a deep-seated fear: that we might be on the wrong side of things (and hence “worse” than others). In other words, it arises from self-judgment.
To admit the possibility of being wrong would be an anathema to our insecure ego that feeds on the idea of being right: it would lead to tremendous emotional distress due to the psychological discord that would surface in our consciousness. To avoid that, we use all sorts of defense mechanisms to cover up for our personal insecurities, such as trying to win over others in conversations. But this creates two serious problems.
Firstly, when our goal in conversations is to prove that we’re right, we exclude any possibility of learning, for learning requires the admittance that we don’t know everything. It requites paying attention to new information — even that which is conflicting to our beliefs — and being available to change our minds when presented with it. It requires suspending the ego, and being open to the idea that others might have more knowledge or insight on a topic than us.
Secondly, we don’t really understand the person we’re conversing with. We’re so focused on winning that we don’t care to hear another’s perspective and put ourselves in their shoes. Or perhaps we hear, but we don’t really listen. And if we listen, we only listen in order to find an opportunity to talk back. Therefore, we fail to truly communicate with them. Rather, we’re exchanging verbal punches with a ghost of our own creation that entirely misses the point of communication: to connect with others.
The Art of Listening
To effectively communicate, we need to learn to truly listen (and not just hear). But to listen, we need to be willing to understand those we’re conversing with. And to understand them, it is important that we let go of our judgmental attitude towards them, for judgementality blocks our empathy — that is, our capacity to “feel with” another.
When we listen, we can see where others are coming from. We can see that they have their reasons for believing and saying what they do. We can see that when they hold opinions that are arguably wrong, that doesn’t mean that they themselves are wrong. And we can also see that, when they disagree with us, that doesn’t mean they’re our enemies — it just means that they have a different way of thinking than ours.
When we listen, we don’t want to harm anyone. We understand that those who verbally fight against us are suffering from their own psychological discord, and so we respond with compassion instead of fighting them back. We provide them with loving space in order to nourish their deep need for self-acceptance, which sometimes is enough to change their attitude towards us. But even if their attitude doesn’t change, and they continue their fight, we simply disengage, careful not to add fuel to the fire of hatred and rage.
To listen, we also need to let go of the idea that we’re always right. We need to understand that no one is perfect or knows everything.
Learning is an ongoing journey, and part of that journey are the people we interact with. Everyone we meet can teach us important lessons, if we stop and pay attention to them. Even those we disagree with know some things that we don’t. Once we realize that, and are willing to expand our knowledge and understanding, we’ll stop getting defensive when conversing with others. On the contrary, we’ll start listening closely to what they have to say, and be open to question our beliefs when provided with new information that doesn’t fit in with them.
The Purpose of Communication
As I mentioned earlier, communication has one purpose: to connect us with others. By exchanging our feelings, thoughts and perspective, communication allows us to know each other better; hence it brings us closer to each other. And when communication brings us further apart, that’s a clear sign it has failed to take place.
Once we see that the goal of communication is connection, we’ll no longer fight with others. Of course, that doesn’t mean that no disagreement or conflict will ever arise from our conversations. To some extent both are inevitable, yet not necessarily bad. In fact, they can be very beneficial: disagreements can help us to reconsider our way of thinking and enrich our knowledge, and conflicts can help our relationships become healthier and more resilient. But that’s the case only if they’re dealt with the right way — that is, with compassion, a genuine desire for understanding and the intention to heal our inner psychological discord from which our outer conflicts sprout.
Communication can be a bridge between ourselves and others. But when used the wrong way, it can create thick walls between our hearts. Every word we utter has the power to connect or separate us, to create the conditions for conflict or the conditions for peace, to nourish our psyche or deprive us of what we need the most: intimacy, love, connection. So let’s use our words wisely, and harness their power for the benefit of ourselves and those we converse with.