Tag Archives: communication

Contemplating projection

Projection is the enemy of mutual understanding, but it’s so easily done and can take many forms. The most common type is the simple assumption that other people think the same way we do – that what they do and say means what it would mean if we did it or said it. And so we end up inferring intentions, slights and all manner of other things that were never intended. How we use language, our cultural backgrounds, our points of reference – these things are all unique to us. We all think differently and we communicate more effectively when we factor that in.

If a person is an introvert, or sensitive, autistic, or chronically ill then how they handle social situations is not going to be the same as how an uncompromised extrovert handles the same things. There may be no rejection going on. A person might really like you but just not have the resources to show up very often. Extroverts projecting onto introverts can entirely misunderstand what’s happening.

For the person with a terrible history, it can be difficult not to project fears onto current experiences. When a person is triggered into trauma flashbacks, it can be impossible in the short term to see what’s happening now as anything other than a replaying of what happened before.

Sometimes we project from the desire to believe that the other person is just like us, where that enables us to see the best in them. The kind person who projects that kindness onto others and insists on seeing everyone in the best possible light and as having the best possible motives can be lovely to deal with, but can also leave abusers unchallenged.

Sometimes we project because we want to believe that the other person is responsible for what’s happening. The anger we feel becomes something of their making. If we feel insecure, it’s because they’re doing it to us. It can be a way of having someone to blame without having to look too closely at what’s going on for you. That doesn’t make you a terrible person, but it can make you a dysfunctional one and it is the kind of behaviour that pushes people away.

For the Druid, self awareness and conscious choice are always important considerations. Recognising what we do and why, and what might be happening with other people and why, is worth investing in. Good communication depends on avoiding projections, and if all we’re doing is trying to interact with reflections of ourselves, we can never form true or deep relationships with others. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to cultivate the virtue of open hearted listening. It’s also important to be gentle with ourselves about how we may project things onto others, and this is as true when we’re seeking relationships with spirits or the divine, as it is in human interactions.

Teaching the cat new words

Dogs are fairly open to commands and can be taught to do what they’re told to quite an impressive degree. Cats, less so. It’s not that cats don’t understand words – they are smart and can figure out meanings. They just aren’t motivated to please and obey in the same way.

All creatures have a better shot at language if you use the same phrases or words to signify the same things, and you keep it short. For some time now, Mr Anderson has understood many words pertaining to cat food and cat treats. He understands ‘cat go out?’ as meaning we’re going to put him on his lead. ‘Cat go down?’ is a question for when he’s being carried. He prefers to be carried out and walk back, most of the time, and it is helpful to remind him when we’re heading for home.

Saying ‘no’ to a cat is pointless. They hear you, but they are seldom that concerned about what you want if it doesn’t align with what they want. In recent weeks I’ve been working on the phrase ‘bad idea’. I say it when I think something isn’t going to go well for him, and I reinforce it by saying it when he makes a bad choice and it doesn’t play out well – usually this involves Mr Anderson having made unreasonable assumptions about how physics won’t impact on him. Saying ‘bad idea’ doesn’t get him not to do a thing, but increasingly I see him pause, and reconsider. Sometimes he changes his mind. Sometimes he clearly fancies picking a fight with physics and does the thing anyway.

Much of this has applications for people, too. It’s worth thinking about how individual people use language, what kind of language they respond to and what actually motivates them. Most people are far more like cats than like dogs. If you can find a way of communicating that engages them in the right way, what it is possible to communicate changes dramatically.

What does it mean to love?

It’s been a curious few months with regards to my emotional life and some of my key relationships. Not least that one of those relationships is starting to look like it was never that real anyway. What even is love? It’s a key question to ask, and not just when things are bumpy in a relationship.

For me, love is rooted in the everyday. It’s about dedicating to share your life with someone – in whatever way you choose and to whatever degree you’ve settled on. That sharing can take many forms. Love doesn’t always mean romance. Romance doesn’t necessarily mean sex. Sex doesn’t automatically equate to love. Any of these things might, or might not be combined with cohabiting, or co-working, or co-parenting. Love means investing in someone else. It means caring about them, and giving time to that.

For me, mutual understanding is an important thing in a relationship. I need to understand – I don’t tend to cope well with things I can’t make sense of. I will invest copious amounts of time in trying to understand other people’s history, experience, perspective, way of being in the world and so forth. If I care about someone, I will do my best to be the person they need me to be – mindful of their needs, preferences and issues. 

Sharing yourself with another human can feel incredibly vulnerable. But this vulnerability is itself the basis for deep connection and mutual understanding. Tom and I have been exploring this in earnest for a while now. I have work to do around being better at saying when I’m uncomfortable – I have history around this. I can do better. At the moment I’m working on being honest about small discomforts and making space for that. I hate eating loud food. Some kinds of touch really stress me out – hair in my face, especially. That kind of thing. Stuff I’ve ignored and overwritten for other people’s convenience. But, if I’m honest about it, I make more room for a better quality of relationship.

I’ve also learned, in an entirely different interaction, about the importance of being able to hold boundaries. I have refused certain kinds of treatment. Being ignored is not ok. Being blamed and made responsible for things I did not do, is not ok. Without honest and respectful communication, there is no relationship. I’m not interested in being used, especially not as an emotional punch bag. I’m waiting to see if this person has it in them to do better, but I am not optimistic.

Love is not an event. It’s not a grand gesture. It is not what happens in films. What it means to love is very much about what we do day by day, how we treat each other, how we invest in each other and what we share.

Notes from inside a haunted meatsack

The most peculiar breakup I’ve ever had happened over the phone. He called, and told me he could not continue with the relationship. I admitted I was surprised because as far as I knew, we weren’t in a relationship.

It’s often really hard to get people to talk about how they want things to work. I hate having to infer. I really like it when people can be clear about what they want to do, and how they want to do it and what sort of relationship they think we have. 

People can ascribe such radically different interpretations to the same experiences. There are some people who will assume that if you have sex with them, that means you are in a romantic and exclusive relationship. There are also people who won’t assume that at all. It’s not just about romance, this. It’s about how we do any kind of relationships between people.

I have been surprised on a few occasions by how other people thought about friendship. People I thought I was closer to than I turned out to be. I was once dumped via email by a person who said she couldn’t invest any more energy in our friendship. That was odd because I barely knew her but had done a few things to help her out when she’d asked for help.

People have all sorts of interesting expectations – about what’s normal, or what should be forgiven. I’ve got into states of confusion with a few people along the way because we had differing ideas about what might be fair, or appropriate. The people I am most caught out by are the ones who expect a great deal from me but don’t hold themselves to the same standards. The kind of people who can ignore me for weeks and then get cross with me if I don’t respond to them within a couple of hours.

People are mystifying, sometimes. I know I must make as little sense to the people I’ve described as they did to me. Befuddlement seems to be a frequent feature of human interactions. I think the most important thing is to be able to talk about it. Wanting to understand helps a lot. Caring enough to find out what’s going on for the other person can be a game changer. Or letting them go if you find you don’t care enough to figure out what’s happening.

Did I miss a memo? Are there rules that are obvious to everyone else but invisible to me? Or are we just mostly crazy things, bouncing about in our meat sacks with really no idea how anything, or anyone else functions?

Sitting in Silence

Silence is something we often explore in meditation and for spiritual purposes, as in the practice of silent retreat. Without vocalised interactions, we turn inwards, in theory, listening to the quiet inner voice, finding peace and so forth. While I’ve done plenty of sitting in silent meditation, I’ve never entered extended periods of silence for spiritual purposes.

I’ve recently had tonsillitis, and between the sore throat and the swollen tissues, talking has been really uncomfortable. I’ve been obliged to become mostly silent, and it’s been an interesting experience. 

I am of course still communicating, because not communicating would be unbearable to me. I’m relying a lot more on facial expressions, hand gestures, body language – there is a lot I can get done this way. I’m typing and using devices when I need to share things that I can’t gesture. It turns out that if I have my written ‘voice’ I don’t feel too troubled by the loss of my spoken voice. As being ill has kept me at home, it hasn’t caused any great technical problems to have to type rather than speak.

It raises some interesting thoughts for me around the role of communication in life, and in our spiritual lives. Increasingly I see the bard path as the heart of what I do, and that absolutely revolves around communicating. It can tend to prioritise the ability to make sounds with your face, but I feel very strongly that no one should be excluded on the basis of how they are able to communicate. 

For me, spirituality is a conversation. The silence is for listening, but extended silence isn’t a conversation, and the exchange matters. What I do tends to be fairly people-centric because I communicate best with people, but I listen a lot more widely. 

I can learn in silence, but I don’t find my own  spiritual self there. I find more benefit in sharing, in vocalising, in communicating. I’m more my spiritual self when I make sound, or make words, than I am when I turn inwards for extended periods.

Rethinking Romance

One of the many things that bothers me about hetronormative depictions of romance, is the way it’s all supposed to happen by magic. Great sex just happens spontaniously when two people who are attracted to each other get into bed. People are supposed to magically know what other people want in this and all other contexts. Failure to magically know what the other person wants is romance-fail.

At the same time we get repeatedly exposed to the idea that women are strange, incomprehensible creatures whose wants, feelings and needs can never make sense to a man. “What’s wrong,” he asks, in all innocence. “You should know,” she says, or maybe she tells him she’s fine.

Why do we hang on to this curious belief that not communicating is somehow romantic and that the proof of love is not needing to tell someone stuff? 

For kinksters, this just isn’t an option. You can’t assume anything about what the other person wants, you have to talk. If you’re queer, plural, trans, nonbinary, assexual, or doing anything else that falls outside the narrow scope of hetranormative romance, you can’t assume much and you have to talk. This is such a blessing and an advantage. It’s one of those rare areas of concern where being cis and straight really doesn’t give you privilege, it gives you a monstrous weight of toxic cultural baggage.

Good relationships depend on communication. If you go in expecting other people to be different from you, then you’re going to be more open to finding out who they are and how they want to do things. The assumption of similarity is a barrier to talking. There have been enough cis-het people in my life for me to be confident that most people are complicated. To feel obliged to play along with social stereotypes is to have unmet, unspeakable needs. I think a lot of apparently normal people experience a lot of feelings of loneliness, isolation, maybe even freakishness because they aren’t really as normal as they think they should be.

I’m not convinced ‘normal’ is even a real thing. I think it’s just a social construct to keep us tame and limited. It’s much more romantic to talk. It’s sexy to communicate. Relationships based on exchange are much more interesting than ones based on fear and assumption.

Non-violent language

There are times for violence of course, when it is the only means to protect yourself, and when it is the only way to prevent harm. In our everyday lives, violent language is common, and well meaning people use it without considering what it might do. By violent language, I mean language intended or likely to threaten, to humiliate, to silence and frighten people. Non-violent language may be neutral, and in instances of conflict intends to engage, educate, enable and empower.

No one is persuaded to change their views by being attacked. Approaches that depend on abusing someone over their appearance or nature persuade no one. They may shut down the recipient, or they may entrench them in their position and further fuel the conflict. Non-violent expression talks about ideas. The non violent approach would look like saying ‘here is the evidence I find persuasive’ and not ‘everyone who thinks differently from me is an idiot.’

It’s worth noting that violent speech is often also ableist speech. It tends to use words suggestive of intellectual impairment. Language that attacks disabled people is often used to attempt to humiliate the people on the other side of the argument. Violent speech can be fat-shaming – we saw this a fair bit with Trump. It can be sexist – attacking men and male-presenting people for being feminine in some way. Whether this is seen by the target or not is uncertain, especially online. It’s worth remembering that any such comments will however be seen by your friends, some of whom will be hurt by this kind of language.

How we use language, matters. This is a basic tenet of the bard path. I get really frustrated when people say things they don’t mean, lash out carelessly in anger, and hurt their own causes by alienating others with divisive language. Writing in anger it can be all too easy to perpetuate injustice in the ways I’ve described above. The best way to avoid this is to practice non-violent language in a deliberate way at times when things are less loaded and fraught.

Consider the impact of saying ‘we’ over saying ‘you’. If I’m talking about an issue and I say ‘we need to do better than this’ the odds are you aren’t going to feel attacked. You might feel uncomfortable, but you know I’m talking about something we all need to work on to change. I’m careful around making it explicit when I want to undermine systems. So I’ll talk about patriarchy and dismantling it. I want to talk about what we can do together to dismantle white supremacy. I want us to replace capitalism with something kinder. I want to inspire you to feel that you can help fix things, not attack you for being part of something that wasn’t your fault. I want to expose how privilege works, not attack you for the privilege you did not know you had.

This is an area of constant learning for me. I’m particularly interested in figuring out how to talk in ways that allow people to go into difficult topics and uncomfortable spaces in order to make real change. I’m also giving serious thought to what I do with people who deliberately or carelessly use violent language to dominate conversations and shut other people down. Or, I think in some cases because they wrongly imagine they are being brave, championing their cause and being good allies. Aggressive allies often cause more harm than good. It’s important not to tone police people who are in distress and experiencing rage, but at the same time this is too often used as an excuse by people who claim to be allies but whose main function is to hut and disrupt, and deepen divides. At present I have little idea what to do with this except to flag up that it exists.

Depression and communication

Depression can make communication very difficult. This is why encouraging depressed people to ask for help isn’t actually that productive – if you can’t communicate, you can’t flag up distress to other people. Putting the onus on depressed people to actively seek help doesn’t solve much, adds to the pressure and it reinforces the idea that solving depression is a problem for the individual sufferer.

People who are deep in depression don’t always know that’s what is happening – especially if they haven’t experienced it before. Around communication, depression can manifest as having nothing to say, no ability to put what’s happening into words, feeling overwhelmed by the idea of trying to have a conversation with anyone. Not being able to do the things you normally do to express yourself. For me, one of the first things to go is singing. I can’t always speak – my throat literally closes up. I don’t write about depression when it is drowning me – I tend to blog when I’m surfacing, or when things are less bad. On the worst days, I can’t talk about what’s happening. The worse it is, the less able I am to ask for help.

Not knowing that the loss of communication skills and the feelings of being overwhelmed even are depression symptoms means that someone suffering won’t know that they might need help. It also means that if you see someone go quiet, you won’t necessarily get much insight by asking if they are ok – they may well not be able to tell you whether they are ok. It’s worth asking anyway, but don’t assume that an ‘I’m fine’ means the person is actually fine. They may be in trouble and largely inarticulate.

Talking about distress when you aren’t ready to doesn’t reliably help. It can feel like having to perform your pain for someone else. It can feel like you have to explain what’s going on – and you may not have the resources to do so. Pushing people to talk about their feelings won’t necessarily help them.

In these kinds of situations, small gestures can be really powerful. Text your silent person. Send them photos of cute things. Bring them chocolate. Offer opportunities to go out, to talk, to do something you would normally do together, but don’t take it personally if they decline. Make a path for them to come back when they are ready. Make it clear that your care for them is not dependent on their being able to perform for you. Keep talking. If someone who matters to you falls silent, don’t wait for them to ask for help. They may not be able to do that. Get in there in whatever way you can, and be as patient as you can be.

Interpreting meaning

Humans like reading meaning into things. It is an urge that has given us both divination and the scientific method. We want there to be meaning and we find it preferable to see the hands of judgemental and angry Gods in our misfortunes than to attribute it to random chance. This determination to find meaning can do us a great deal of harm if we imagine causal relationships where none exist. It can be particularly harmful when we apply it to each other.

We all read things in to each other’s words and actions. Not least, I think, because we’re looking for something that is about us. We want to be significant. There may be more attraction in thinking someone is cross with us than thinking they are tired, or have low blood sugar, or are constipated. It’s similar to the way we prefer to see the anger of gods than random happenstance. At least if people, or the gods are angry with us, we are involved in what’s going on. Being peripheral or irrelevant can feel very uncomfortable indeed.

We are all involved in the business of reading each other, because mostly we make less than perfect sense to each other. The exact ways we use words can vary. A term loaded with dire implication for one person can be empty of that for another. What we hear, what we understand, what was meant and what is admitted to, do not always neatly align. We read each other to try and find meaning or common ground or we hear what we want to hear and refuse all scope for reinterpretation or compromise.

We read each other visually, too. We read for gender and sexual identity, for power and status, for wealth, normality, sanity… We read for signs of membership to small and more secretive groupings. As Pagans we look for sacred symbols on clothes, jewellery and skin to help us find fellow travellers.

We read to validate ourselves. Sometimes, we read what we fear may be true because it is perversely more comforting than changing our stories about how the world works. We read each other for ego boosts and proof of our own excellence. How often we manage to communicate precisely what was meant and no more or less than that, is anyone’s guess.

When two people exchange ideas, two realities collide. It is as though we are each standing in a separate universe that works to different rules. We speak alien languages to each other and make hand gestures that seem obvious to us, and that tell entirely different stories to the other person. We give messages with our bodies, in eye contact, in touch that may be read in myriad unintended ways. But what else is there?

Mammal communications

On Sunday, a heavy horse pressed his nose against the palm of my hand, and snuffled a bit. It was a moment that I found both affecting and affirming. Mammals do a lot of communicating through touch, and use touch as a part of social bonding. Most mammals are willing to touch and be touched as part of encountering and interacting with each other. Non-human mammals cheerfully extend this courtesy to humans, but we often aren’t very good at it. As mammals who have decided that we are separate from the animals, we don’t really do much touching in the normal scheme of things. Not by other mammal standards.

When it comes to humans, the question of who is allowed to touch who, and when, is complicated, rule-laden and tends us towards non-contact. Unlike other mammals we don’t touch to communicate with each other, most of the time. And yet, there’s a great deal of information to be gleaned from whether, or how a person touches you. Touch can express kindness and affection. It can also be an expression of control, or power over. It can be withheld as a form of punishment, or as an expression of unacceptability.

Professional humans who work with animals use touch to soothe and reassure. Professional humans who work with humans do not use touch beyond what the role demands and we are collectively pretty clear that on the whole, touching in a professional context is inappropriate. Even if the other person is crying and obviously in great distress.

Most mammals seem able to embody what they’re feeling and act upon it. I have an animal body, but I have no real idea how to embody anything. I can use words, which create a distance between what I feel and whoever I might be offering it to. I can and will talk calmly about how I feel, but I find it unspeakably difficult to rock up as a mammal and let my body speak for me. I am always surprised when anyone, any other living mammal, chooses to touch me. Be that a horse, or a person. I find it easier to know what to do with the creatures, because I don’t think they judge me on the same terms. So long as I am not afraid of them and move gently, they are likely to accept me. I’ve never really worked out what the rules are for people.

Maybe it is simply that, as I am more inherently afraid of humans than most other creatures that the mammal response to fearfulness plays out just the same as it would with a dog or cat. Is it my own fear that causes other people’s hackles to rise sometimes?

I’ve been round this line of thought before, always coming back to Mary Oliver’s lines about letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves, and wondering how that could be so simple and so painfully difficult all at the same time.