When Communication Breaks. Communication is fundamentally about bridging differences to form a connection of understanding. But sometimes an understanding is never reached. Sometimes those differences turn into disagreements, and sometimes those disagreements come loaded with hostile threats — at least it can feel that way. Most of the time, these misfires are politely ignored or stepped over, but they always cause some form of distance we may not really want in our relationships. Have you ever experienced a pleasant conversation that took a sharp turn? Perhaps it was a complement from a friend that felt more like a slap in the face where the sting burns a littler deeper because this friend still thinks he just gave you a complement. Or perhaps you’ve been surprised by the defensive posture of a loved one in need, when you offered a solution because you sincerely wanted to help.
What’s most heartbreaking about these kind of exchanges, about stepping on these relational land mines, is the surprise. It’s never our intention to cause insult or inflict damage. In fact, it’s usually the exact opposite. Our friend thought he was giving a complement; our advice was offered as a sincere effort to help. Taking a couple steps back, I believe we are taken off guard by a widely practiced, yet subtle communication deficit… I call it negative defined value.
Negative Defined Value. By “negative defined value,” I mean defining the value of a specific idea, thought, or point of view, not by it’s own merits, but by the criticism of something else compared to it. Criticism is easy. It’s much more difficult to put intangible value into finite words — to bring a shapeless void to life, to inspire, to ignite a light that dispels darkness. But that’s exactly what genuine communication does. It’s the difference in saying “you neglect other people’s needs” when we really mean “I need a hug from you” or saying “that is nothing compared to this“ when we mean “I have something that’s been valuable to me and I want to share with you.”
For most of us, we have no intention to criticize; we fall into the trap of talking negatively about alternative viewpoints as an attempt to draw distinctions. Naturally we want to show the unique benefits of our idea, but when we go down this path, the sad reality is we actually don’t share anything positive about what we value. Instead our criticism becomes the main topic of discussion while we put our listener on the defensive (even when they have little to be defensive about). A critical startup is an attack, no matter how subtle; it frames our value as opposition rather than something with substance and worth of its own. I’m a guilty as the next guy; even with this post, I find myself at a greater loss than I hoped. It humbly teaches me there’s lots of room for growth in areas of creativity, vocabulary, specific vision, articulation, listening and understanding. But it also galvanizes my belief the better we do this, the more distinctions will make themselves apparent by the contrast.
Practical Steps Forward. You can join me in a little personal experiment if you want. See if you can catch yourself engaging in this “negative defined value” and count how many times a day — not for an exercise in guilt, but one in greater awareness and hope for the future. My vision for the coming year is to grow in sharing my thoughts, ideas, and perspectives in ways that do not come at the expense of something or someone else. The good news is we get better at the things we practice, right? So here’s to practice… Cheers!