Almost all of us unwittingly hear something different from the reality of what is meant. Sometimes, this is because we are confusing the other person’s statements or ideology with ideas and feelings of our own. But unfortunately, both are often dominated by massive distortions of the facts or the truth due to our desires, ego defenses, fear, anger, or distrust.
The impact our upbringing has on our narratives and perspectives
This fear, anger, or distrust is most frequently based on prior life experiences. Some examples of this would be coming from a family of strict, harsh, and judgmental rules, abuse, or abandonment, which leaves most kids with feelings and thoughts of fear, helplessness, cynicism, hate, and anxiety. From that point on, any person or institution of authority would have the tendency to be heard as having extra demands, judgments, and being dangerous. Most of us would be surprised how long this lasts throughout our whole lives and leaves us prone to making significant misinterpretations.
Do you realize that most of us would likely underestimate the effects of this kind of familial conditioning? Yet, through my years of counseling, it has been revelatory to see how it can affect personal relationships as well as one’s relationship to religion, psychology, and politics. This is a significant part of The Missing Conversation today in understanding what is going on within our country’s politics.
We frequently hear a narrative that changes the meaning of what is said or meant by another, which is easier to see upon contemplation or clarification in minor or major levels of misunderstanding. But many voices are needed to reveal this to us clearly as we are too close to it and can’t see the forest for the trees. We need to be on the lookout whenever we perceive something disturbing or viewed by us as revolting, disgusting, horrifying, or any other extreme reaction.
We all need to learn to say and ask reliably: This is what I thought I heard you say . . . Is that what you meant? Could you help me understand why you think or believe that way? Only by this kind of openness to listen for the most genuine meaning when we are upset or triggered can we find new beginnings of understanding and tolerance that will lead us to both sides of the underlying truth to build on.
How often do you double-check what you heard when you are upset by what you believe you heard from another or by a different religion or political party? It is vital that we don’t assume we understand the other until we ask for and really explore a clarification. This requires a genuine maturity to be able to re-engage when we are feeling reactive, wronged, or upset. If we hear a tone of voice, a charged idea, a demand, or a judgment, it is most helpful to ask, “Am I accurate that I heard a hostile tone, a demand, a judgment, or a word that was charged with aggression?” If you get confirmation that you heard it inaccurately or not what they meant, are you open to adjusting to the new meaning? It is vital that you take more interest in the other’s experience, intention, and words that were spoken and also ask them to do the same for you.
If it involves making statements that are not personal but more ideological, philosophical, or spiritual, then it is truly helpful if we ask for the source of the view. Suppose we are still skeptical, judgmental, or alienated. In that case, it is quite important that we find a way to express our different opinions in a way that is not condescending, enraging, or increasing our reactivity. This is very hard to do.
A personal example to help put this in perspective:
I have had a severe challenge with a close friend who supports ex-President Trump. I believe that Trump is a dangerous man and is more interested in power than helping people. I think he is more interested in gaining influence than science. The main point here isn’t about being right. I lost my way a couple of important times by being condescending and incredulous with this friend. This is my issue.
I have since learned to apologize when I have seen this in myself and recognize it as a danger. When I say something like, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” that is a way of making a difficult situation worse. I have to watch and gain my equilibrium, and a cleaner version would be, “I disagree deeply and believe he is extremely dangerous. I would be happy to give details if you are open to them. I will listen to you as well. Please tell me the sources of information that you are speaking from.”
How can we learn to listen as well as voice our opinions better?
So many of us are facing this very challenge throughout our nation and throughout the world. We all need to learn to clean up our truthful speaking without having to put the other down. That doesn’t mean we have to be passive; we just need to be careful that we don’t express our views with anger, repulsion, and righteousness. However, strong confidence in boundaries is completely necessary to develop on all of our parts with such pressing societal issues. There is a vast night and day difference between real strength, the courage of convictions expressed cleanly with a tone that includes sincerity, confidence, strength, and a tone that indicates incredulity, dumping anger, and condescension.
This may sound simple enough, but an extraordinarily high percentage of these kinds of alienating conversations are left without us returning to try again. This is an evolutionary stage of development that requires awareness, honesty, humility, patience, and courage. All of us would do well to contemplate this and gather the necessary qualities along with a bit of wisdom to see if we can reunite with those around us. This doesn’t mean that we can connect with everyone. However, it does mean that our lives will find greater potential if we care enough to give our most developed quality of energy to those with whom we are talking.
How often have we heard in our lives… “That is what you said, or that is how you said it!” in an accusatory way, recreating the original alienating situation. But, to assume that even if that is what was said, we need to give others a chance to make sure what is truly meant. This is a game changer for improving our depth of relationship with both ourselves and others.
It is helpful to see our early childhood wounds and anger as inevitably, at least partially, moving into our unconscious. Any suppressed distrust, anger, fear, and other disturbing emotions set us up to unwittingly exaggerate, distort, or even fully hear or believe something that isn’t there at all. This can make us distrust institutions to an exaggerated effect, like churches, psychologists, teachers, political parties, business leaders, or any people or organizations of power.
This is the root cause of scapegoating and contributes to the civil war atmosphere that we’re in. That doesn’t mean that I believe that both sides of the aisle are close to equally valid or honest. It means that I have to watch closely so that I don’t add my fire to what I perceive as a firestorm.
Our country’s political problem
Taking a look at the political situation that America is facing today, it is clear that the traditional trust in our political system has diminished greatly. It seems that this is due to a combination of the emotional suppression that most of us have to various degrees in our childhood and beliefs that we’ve inherited from our upbringing. It’s also because our lives’ political and religious symbols are like a second set of parents or guardians, which has left us doubly disillusioned.
Both parties are experiencing growing discontent with what might be called our institutional step-parents. That is to say, our institutions that represent authorities are kind of like our next level of ‘parent.’ The increasing and overt distrust in government from both parties, reduced faith in all sorts of religions, cynicism toward corporations, and scandals in virtually all fields of power have exponentially increased the fear, anger, and distrust in authority. The increase in tyrannical governments serve as models of abuse and are like militant and abusive parents.
We all have our work cut out for us, no matter which side of the issue we face. I want to emphasize that I don’t think both sides are facing just a difference of views or are equally honest or science-based. It just means that even if one side is closer to representing the truth and supporting democracy, the other side needs to find a language and a set of questions that can foster the most likely direction of optimizing the chance of not destroying ourselves.