“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” It’s one of the all time great quotes from the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” It is also a beautiful summation of the human condition.
Good communication is the hardest thing for us to do as human beings. Our ability to express to each other the exact meaning of our thoughts and feelings is so frequently limited — sometimes by our vocabulary, and sometimes by our fears.
One quick trip down the Third Street Promenade and we can find many people who think they are expressing themselves clearly. The content of the conversations, when the “ums,” “likes,” and “you knows” are deleted, becomes much more compact, and frequently there is little or no actual information that is being conveyed. From this, people form relationships, sometimes life-long obligations arise as a result of one party trying to understand the other party, but simply filling in the blanks with what they want to hear.
This is how many men end up in my office, after finding themselves in need of a divorce or a child support award modification. They thought they heard one thing from the woman, and she was saying an entirely different thing. But these men heard what they wanted to hear.
Now I listen intently to what people say, how they say it, what their body language is as they are speaking, and what their emotional state appears to be at the time. I interpret all those data points and make a determination about the truth, the weight, the underlying motivations, and the reality of the substance of what is being verbally conveyed.
And still I screw it up.
This past weekend I had two experiences where my perceptions were just incorrect. The first was listening to a young man who I had determined was angry and resentful. It was my perception that he did not like me and viewed me as a threat to him somehow. I had no idea what I had done to offend him, but was also not so concerned as to actually speak to him about it.
Then I heard him sharing his life story. He spoke of the deprivations of his life, his fight to get through college while being homeless, his decision that books were more important to him than a roof over his head. He shared how he fathered a child as a young man, and continued to provide to the best of his abilities for his son. I found my entire perception of him to be rewritten, in the space of a few short minutes.
The other experience this weekend was with a man that I have been socializing with. I thought that I had communicated to him that I wanted to date him. We had been to several events together, attended a couple of movies and I was growing increasingly frustrated because I felt that I was getting mixed messages.
Finally I had to discuss the situation. I broached the subject of where we stood.
For me, it was an exercise in having to face two of my fears — the first, that I was wrong in my estimation of the situation, and two, the very human fear of asking what the other person is thinking.
I was wrong on the first count. Evidently, he had not even thought about dating as a possibility. He thought we were just hanging out. It turns out that I am actually too subtle, which for those of you who know me, is shocking. But when it comes to communication, particularly when our emotions are involved, it is extremely difficult to be direct.
Telling someone you find them attractive and want to date them is not an easy thing to do. It means making yourself vulnerable to rejection. Letting someone see into your heart is scary, but what I’m learning is that broken hearts heal, and it’s better to be in the direct light of honesty, than to live in the shadow world of guessing.
When I asked what he was thinking, I learned that I had completely misinterpreted many of his statements. I had fallen into the easy trap of convincing myself I knew what someone else was thinking. I found that the fear of asking was much more anxiety producing than the actual answers.
So, twice in one day, I had the lesson taught to me that honest, direct, communication can be freeing, can relieve me of the anxiety that not knowing causes, and most importantly, that I so very often “have a failure to communicate.”
David Pisarra is a family law attorney focusing on father’s rights and men’s Issues in the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969.