Communication sucks. Consulting careers have been made over the ongoing challenge of communicating effectively. The problem isn’t about hearing what’s said. The problem stems from the filters of our personal life experience through which we interpret what’s said. My grandparents are a classic example of how communication can go terribly wrong. I call their mess “the great divide”.
My grandparents were originally married to other people and the two couples were friends. My grandfather’s wife, Ann, died from influenza and six months later my grandmother’s husband, Leon, died from complications after minor surgery. Suddenly widdowers, they married in 1930, partly for convenience as my grandmother had two small children. Their family grew with the birth of my mother, then Calista (Kitten), followed by Debra. When Kitten was 5, she died from scarlet fever and my grandparents were devastated by this loss.
One day when my grandmother was struggling, she asked my grandfather, “What’s harder for you, the loss of a spouse or the loss of a child?” My grandfather had grown to love his new wife and thought a life without her would be next to impossible, especially with four young daughters. He replied, “The loss of a spouse.” However, my grandmother thought he was thinking of Ann. She felt that she could never compare to the love he had for his first wife.
Then my grandfather asked the same question, “What’s harder for you?” My grandmother struggled in her first marriage as Leon was a difficult man. Losing Kitten was far more difficult for her. She said, “The loss of a child.” My grandfather thought she wished he had died instead. He believed he wasn’t good enough.
The two of them never recovered from that conversation. They spent the next forty years surviving their marriage. In two separate conversations, my mother eventually learned both sides of the story. It’s a shame they didn’t clarify each other’s responses, but they didn’t see the need. The words were clear. Their meaning seemed obvious.
Communication is the toughest thing we do. We can’t get rid of our filters because we understand life through the perspective of our experiences. The best chance we have comes from asking questions, even when the words are clear. Otherwise we risk creating another great divide.
What’s your communication nightmare?