Have you ever found yourself in a situation with another person where you felt completely incapable of communicating? Like nothing you were saying was getting through or being construed in the way you could see it in your head?
I know I have, and the situation that immediately comes to mind for me is my relationship with my partner, Jason.
Now most of you have heard me talk about Jason in these letters before, and rightfully so because he is 100% my other half. For six years now we’ve been living together, working together, co-parenting our fur-child Plaxico together, spending literally 95% off our days together, and it’s led us to develop a deep mutual respect and love for each other. We really are that “best friends” couple cliche.
AND YET, while the rainbows and butterflies of any relationship are nice to talk about, that’s never the full picture, is it (despite what the news feeds of the world might suggest…)?
Maintaining a healthy and happy relationship is NOT easy. We’re two separate humans with two separate perspectives (and two separate gender-specific biology) and all of that means we have to work hard to communicate our way through challenges and disagreements so that we emerge stronger and closer together, not weaker and further apart.
Over the years there have been so many hard conversations, one’s where it felt like we were two strangers in a foreign land, speaking separate languages AT one another without a word of understanding between us.
What I’ve learned over time is that in order to remedy this, in order to communicate in a way that will actually move a conversation forward, you have to begin by creating a shared vocabulary.
Let’s take the language most of us probably know if you’re reading this right now: English. The only way that I’m able to share my thoughts with you in an effective way every week and actually get my intention across is because I, the sender of this message, and you, the receiver of this message, agree on the basic definition and meaning of each word (aka the building blocks) of this message. Our shared vocabulary allows us to see this message from a fundamentally similar perspective so we’re able to connect.
But, when this isn’t the case, when two people are trying to communicate without a shared understanding of the building blocks of the message, that’s when the wires get crossed and everything turns to noise. The message can’t connect.
I think this is why a book like The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman has found itself on the bestseller list for YEARS. This book acts like a dictionary of physical and emotional cues between partners that creates that essential shared vocabulary. It gives two people in a relationship a way to define and bring shared meaning to certain behaviors which gives them a way to talk about their needs in a way that BOTH people can understand.
So what about expanding that beyond relationships? What about creating a shared vocabulary between you and your friends, or family members or even customers?
In Brene Brown’s book, Rising Strong, she proposes a simple tip for helping to create that shared vocabulary between two people that leads to understanding. When you find yourself feeling hurt (which we can all agree is the criteria for 99% of disagreements or conflict in relationships) you can say the phrase: “The story I’m telling myself is…” in order to voice those inner stories floating around in your head constructed from that hurt place.
In a conversation with a best friend who hasn’t called you back it might be “The story I’m telling myself is that I’m not important enough to make time for.” That adds honesty and context to the conversation which can open up the lines of communication between you and a friend that may just be going through a particularly tough time and needs space. That simple phrase helps bring shared meaning to the time between phone calls, a signal that could be interpreted way differently by both people trying to communicate.
In the case of Jason and myself, probably the most stark of our differences is the fact that I am an exceptionally sensitive person and he is an exceptionally stoic person. It’s something that brings balance to our partnership, but it also creates difficulties in communicating too. Over time though, we’ve been able to develop a shared understanding around each of our emotional biases to situations. When I feel hurt or down or particularly sensitive, I’m able to let him know it’s not because of something he did; and when he responds to a situation in a way that might feel unemotional, he’s able to let me know it’s actually not because he doesn’t care. This shared vocabulary has allowed us to add texture and awareness to each other’s perspectives so that we can talk through any challenges in a constructive and mature way.
Working through things this way may be harder than just reacting, but every day we inch just a little bit closer to the middle of the emotional spectrum so that we can understand each other better.
It might sound silly, but I believe this simple concept can even help you in business. By clearly defining a few simple ideas for your audience or customers first, you can create a clearer, more powerful line of connection between you. It’s why I always talk about what it means to live a VIBRANT life, or what it’s like to be a soulful creative. This is the shared vocabulary that brings an even richer, more nuanced level of understanding to our conversations.
So, whether it’s your partner, a family member, an employee or coworker, or your customers, if you want to get your message across, communicating with a shared vocabulary is essential in reaching a mutual understanding.
My challenge to you is the next time you find yourself in a conflict, disagreement or a simple misunderstanding with someone, before moving forward ask yourself if you’re operating with a shared vocabulary.
See if you can dig in and first bring awareness to the building blocks of the message you’re trying to send. Are their assumptions at play that need to be verbalized? Are their emotional differences and perspectives that first need to be communicated?
Communicating is most effective when you’re on the same page, and that’s all a shared vocabulary does. I know it’s helped me have more meaningful conversations and interactions in my own life. So while I continue to learn and navigate my own interpersonal relationships, at least I know the ones I am able to cultivate are built on a foundation of effective communication.
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