As a child, I always knew in my gut that there had to be more to relationship than the superficial. I will never know why but I was born with an ache for the authentic. Enough of the pretend pretty, the looking-good-on-the-outside stuff. Can someone please talk about what is really going on under the surface and how they really feeling about it? I was dying a slow emotional death and finding more sustenance was not an option for me. It was mandatory. So, I started a hunt, a search for depth and honesty, a journey of knowing and being known. To the heart, I descended.
I owe a lot of the beginning stages of this journey to my good friend from graduate school. Thanks to the roommate lottery, my name came out of the hat with Helen’s. God love her but Helen and I did not match well when it came to sleep. She went to bed at 9 p.m. and got up at 5 a.m. I went to bed at midnight and got up at 8 a.m. That left me three hours of dorm room homelessness. Where to go as to not disturb Helen while she got her regimented rest? On the ugly green couch in the student lounge, of course. It became my nightly place to plop. After about two weeks of this reoccurrence, the RA started to notice. Small talk ensued. It began with – why you are always sitting there between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight? At first, it was gossip about poor Helen. Then it became about my new friend’s dilemma – should she date the nice, boring guy or the fun, crazy one? And then it became about the recent loss of my father in an accident and why I had moved back to Chicago. And so on and so on it deepened. During the wee hours, we began to share organically. She revealed her story and I disclosed mine right back. Fast forward ten months and not only did we become close friends, but she had patiently taught me a thing or two about loosening my grip, melting my walls and learning through experience how to become emotionally intimate with another human being through the back and forth trading of our words.
In this article, I offer a description of the six layers of verbal and emotional communication. Like the peeling of an onion, we will go from the superficial to the profound, from the most outer to the most inner. However, we will find value in all the points of contact, for even I have come to appreciate shallow talk as often necessary in human relationship.
We begin the plunge:
Layer #1: Cocktail Party Conversation. “Hi! How are you?” “Good. And you?” “Good.” “Great. Good to see you.” “You too. Have a great day!” “You too.” And on we travel through our day. No information is revealed. I do not know you and you do not know me any more than we did two minutes ago. In other words, no impact has been made on either party. We have only engaged in a civil, social discourse. But, before we poo-poo its importance, it is the start to human contact. We have put words in the empty space which before divided us. We have acknowledged the other and initiated verbal engagement. After all, all relationships have to begin with “hello.” Furthermore, we may even pick up on some vibe or energy which makes us curious and hungry for more. Let the fun begin.
Layer #2: The Outside World. Once we move past the initial hello, we have begun some kind of relationship. Our big toe goes into the water as a potential bond begins to be established. Conversation at this level entails subjects outside of us. Such topics might include things like the weather, gossip, sports, politics or current events. Like the first layer, we are still existing primarily in our comfort zone; however, there is a little more personal information revealed. The other party gets some sense of what interests us and what our passions are (or aren’t). We might find things we have in common such as interests and hobbies. And if we are paying attention, we might pick up on an energy that is connective. One that evokes our curiosity and desire to get to know someone at an even deeper level.
Layer #3: Thoughts, Values and Opinions. At this level of contact, we are sharing with more ownership. We are letting someone in on the foundational principles that define our life’s frame whether they be political, religious or cultural. Such openness means that we have moved into potentially more treacherous waters in that we might be judged or rejected. Someone might not tolerate our political opinions or the values that feel essential to who we are. Someone might discount us or shame us or even ridicule us. In other words, hurt is now a real possibility. As I get closer to the prize of intimacy, the risk goes up exponentially. Both in terms of the pain I might experience but also the reality that the relationship we are starting to invest in might not survive the additional heat. We go deeper …
Layer #4: Facts About Me. At this level of relating, we begin to tell our story. Who I am and how did I come to be this way? We share the significant stories that have come to identify who we are. Although not always the case, often the telling and re-telling is done from a cognitive, head-space. It is as if I am reporting a series of events outside of me. Yes, you are getting to know the facts about my life. And this is revealing and relating but not as connective as …
Layer #5: Feelings About Me. Now ask me how I feel about all those significant stories of my life and we got a game-changer. The emotional temperature in the person talking and in the dialogue between the parties plummets to an emotional and relational intensity. There is a felt drop in the space between us. We now have a real possibility for presence, engagement and connection. And most importantly, impact. We have crossed the grand chasm from head to the sacred space of the heart. It is in this place that relationships take root and bloom. That people go from strangers to intimate partners. But sadly, we often avoid this opportunity for such a gift because we fear the risk – the risk of showing you all my best wares – the insides of who I am – and your rejecting or discarding them. Thus, in such resistance, we often miss out on entering the candy shop of life. And just as the image draws, this, my friends, is where all the good stuff is. The warm, ooey, soft and gooey stuff. The stuff of poets and musicians, philosophers and artists.
If we are willing to open ourselves up and share what is most raw and real, we draw compassion, understanding, care and warmth. We humanize ourselves which attracts other people to us – for what is most personal is also most universal. My fears, pains, longings and aches are similar to yours. You just couldn’t realize this when I was hiding so well.
But hark, we are not yet at the center. At the core of human contact. Yes, there is more…
Layer #6: Feelings About You. The most intimate I can be with another person is to tell someone how I feel about them. The focus shifts from being about me, towards me and in me to being about how I feel toward you. One person is no longer looking at the other, but we are standing naked, full-frontal, gazing at the eyes, heart and soul of the person across from us. Talk about risk at its height! Not only might the other not share the same feelings but he/she might not receive the feelings I have to offer. The cards are stacked to either stand tall or fall flat – something I won’t know or experience until I open my mouth and express my feelings toward the other person with my words.
So, how can this new knowledge of progressive communication assist us in our day-to-day lives?
- Respect yourself. You are precious. Gold. A trophy. A diva. A dame. A star. If you really believed that, and I am sure you don’t, then you would learn not to reveal your inner life to just anyone. Why? Because they don’t deserve it. They don’t deserve you. You gotta make them earn it. In other words, don’t go diving into the deep end of any available swimming pool. Pace yourself. Because if you jump in and you get hurt from the undetected concrete bottom or the chilly waters or the man-eating shark that is lurking in wait, then you are the fool. You gotta test the water first. So, just put in one toe. How does that feel? Does the person seem interested, available, engaged, willing to share back? If so, stick in an ankle. See how that feels. At any point and time, if you sense danger or limitation, back it on out of there and take a sunbath until you muster the courage to try again – maybe with someone entirely new. In other words, respect yourself enough to reveal yourself slowly over time … not too quickly (TMI) and not too slowly … and at each point, assess the other person’s capacity to receive you and reciprocate. Sometimes, it is like holding hands and walking together into the deeper waters. And sometimes, it is one person coaxing the other to come on in, the water is fine. And sometimes, you hit his/her cap and there is no going any further. You have to stop there. Johnny might be a great bowling partner or business associate, but that is as much as there is ever going to be. I will have to settle for beers and dogs. Which brings me to the second point …
- Respect others. No judgment, just disappointment. People bring to the table what they got and maybe that is all they got for now. Accept it. And, if you are in the mood to be generous and you sense an opening for more, be patient. Revealing one’s inner self is like the cafeteria trays we all had in middle school. You can’t get to tray #12 until you have gone through one to eleven. Sometimes, if a safe space is provided over time, people can tolerate swimming in more daring waters. That is what my graduate school friend gave to me and I am ever grateful to her for that. But she didn’t have to. She could have given up at my one word answers and walled-off heart. That being said, don’t forget point #1 above – respect yourself. If you find yourself working harder on someone else’s life than they are on their own, it is time to back out. Knocking your head against a wall to try and get water from an empty well – hmm, not something I suggest you do. There are those that can join you in the less superficial waters. You just have to find them.
- Tolerate the range. There is nothing wrong with any of the above mentioned layers of emotional communication. There is a time and a place for all the layers, no matter how shallow. We need to learn how to both work a crowd at a party and how to let someone into our innermost world. And everything in the middle. Having the flexibility to stomach the range is a sign of relational and emotional maturity. So, lighten up. Appreciate the fact that you can go as deep as there is and then back out with a good belly laugh at the silliest of things. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones who can embrace all of it. Enjoy.
- Shoot for five. I think it is sheer impossible to have more than five of those folks at that deepest layer. It takes too much time, effort and conscious intentionality to maintain the intimacy that the inmost layer requires to have more than a couple. The number of your Facebook friends withstanding, if you have five of these intimate relationships, you are the exception. If you have less than five, make it a priority. Pinpoint a relationship that has potential and begin to take more risks. Stretch yourself past your comfort zone and go deeper. Remember, it’s the candy shop. Life at its sweetest available to you.
So, there you have it, my friends. Any takers? I am ready for a swim. Anyone else coming in?