Once upon a time, a theatrical group I was with had a piece about a Relationship. It featured three characters — the two people in the Relationship and a third as the Relationship itself. The piece mocked how we treat Relationships, as if they were something entirely separate from the people involved in them.
This, of course, was a romantic Relationship, which we seem to believe is much different from any other kind of relationship, although we treat those, too, as something separate from ourselves, just in a lesser capacity. But that’s simply not true. A relationship, or a Relationship for that matter, is nothing more than two or more people communicating with one another. Hell, you can even have a relationship with yourself and not be considered to have any identity disorders — it just means have clear communication between your thoughts and emotions, between your mind and your heart.
In truth, we have relationships with everyone we meet, and quite a few we don’t meet. The key to what might be called a “good” relationship begins with accepting that concept — there is no Relationship that is any different from any other relationship. It’s all about how we “relate” with one another.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “relate” as making a connection, understanding and telling a story. Those three definitions are at the very heart of clear communication.
To have clear communication, to make a real connection, to truly understand and tell a compelling story we need another component — the ability to listen, and not wait impatiently for the speaker to stop talking so we can have our say.
We’ve all heard someone described as “a good listener.” What that generally means is that the listener actually listens. He or she isn’t distracted by cell phones and doesn’t have a story at the ready about his or her experience with something that may not even be remotely similar.
We can all be good listeners. It’s not that hard. But it does require ditching the storyline running in our own minds, dropping the preconceptions. Dropping our biases.
I’ve engaged in plenty of conversations in which I spent the entire time I should have been listening constructing what I was going to say in return, all with the aim in mind of creating some desired effect on my part. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But every time it helped create a botched communication, botched because I wasn’t making any kind of authentic connection that could have resulted in any kind of understanding, thus distorting the story that was told.
All because I couldn’t listen.
Learning to listen, to cut the bullshit I used to justify whatever I did or said, didn’t come easy. I lacked the tools to even know that there were mountains of bullshit to shovel away, let alone actually do it. I hurt people I loved, and I hurt myself.
What I didn’t know at all, though, was just how much I was hurting the entire world.
Our world is made up of people in a variety of relationships, using a variety of communication skills. When we miss the human connection, when we sabotage it by not fully engaging, we do that — we damage our world, in our own small ways or, if we are a large corporation or a country, in large and devastating ways.
Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich wrote:
An honorable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ – is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.
The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting things in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.
When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.
When someone tells me a piece of the truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, sea-sharp wash of relief. Often such truth comes by accident, or from strangers.
It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.
It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.
The possibility of life between us.
Rich was talking about relationships between humans, but other entities — corporations, countries — are just groups of people, and all of us are searching for the possibilities of life. But there’s a secret.
The secret to life is clear, open communication. It’s nothing more, or less, than compassion.