It’s easy to assume that when having a conversation, both parties are talking to each other. That’s certainly what it looks like from the outside. But this is very often not the case.
The Cambridge dictionary states a conversation is:
“talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information is exchanged”.
While that is technically accurate, it misses the key areas of nuance that make these interactions so rich (and at turns challenging, reassuring, therapeutic, confronting, confusing etc). The part that is missing is the context, which includes the presence of the individual's subconscious, assumptions and projections.
When breaking down the context into more detail we see just how nuanced and complex ANY interaction is:
Where we are (in person/online, in a busy space/quiet room etc)
The place the person we are talking to occupies in our lives (close family, distant relative, partner, ex, colleague, boss, acquaintance, total stranger etc)
How much is known/unknown about the other person
Reason for talking to them (to organise something, to pass the time, to connect, to bond, to get information, to form an agreement, to gather feedback, to share etc)
What we have just been thinking about or doing before the conversation (which leads to how we are feeling in that moment)
How we are feeling in that moment (tired, hungry, stressed, happy, warm, kind, generous, unwell etc)
Our energetic state (for women this can be cycle related)
Our general preferences for communication (length, format etc)
Our past life experiences
Our past relational experiences
Our conditioned responses
Our cultural norms
Our societal norms
Our generational norms
Our family history
Our sexual orientation, race, gender expression, faith/religious beliefs.
I’ve often reflected on how incredible it is that anyone ever manages to have a conversation, let alone a relationship, when there is so much potential for misunderstanding, assumption, bias and subconscious activity - especially projection.
The quality of a conversation hinges on many things. Let’s assume you can both hear each other okay, are both well fed, aren’t political rivals etc. There is still a world of difference between having a conversation with someone who is truly listening to you, versus someone who is trapped in their own perspective, or in hot pursuit of their own agenda.
So much of the time, people are stating their opinion as fact. “You are making a big mistake” actually means: “Based on my own belief systems, past experiences, societal understanding, limited knowledge, personal needs, desires, and risk calculations, if it were me in your position, I would be taking an unacceptable risk and heading towards failure/pain/disaster”.
When I told my family I was getting divorced, I was told “that’s too quick”. But what was missing from this is, it’s too quick for me. It was too quick for them because they would be too uncomfortable to do the same thing as quickly. It was too quick because they didn't want to lose the presence of my ex-husband in the family. It was too quick for them because they couldn’t understand how I could leave someone they saw as a shining example of a “good man”.
None of this was a conversation with me. They didn’t ask if I was unhappy in my marriage, or if I was happy to be leaving it. They were too busy making judgements based on their own desires, fears and perspective. This is not to say they did not love me still (aside from what it felt like at the time), it is to say that they were so preoccupied with their own processes that they could not “meet” me, “see” me, or have a conversation with me.
When people you love and respect respond to decisions you make about you and your life in ways that aren’t aligned to your truth and what feels right for you, it can really make you question yourself. Taking the time to reflect on how much of their response is to do with themselves and societal expectations, will help you clear the pain of judgement and doubt. When you have done that, if you want to, it is psychologically safer to look again at what they have said and scan it for any potential nuggets you deem it suitable to consider.
Over time, I have realised that the less I approach situations with an overt or covert need for approval, and the more I own and honour my own needs and choices, the easier it is for me to recognise a response that is not really about me. Knowing when it’s their judgement/preference/stuff, is so freeing.
Sometimes, my decisions will be inconvenient for others, BUT THAT IS OKAY. I still have to do what I have to do. I'm allowed to make choices that are uncomfortable for others. In fact, it’s imperative that I do. Because it’s in that space that I am growing.
Of course, there are many trusted mentors, teachers and guides we can welcome into our lives. People we permit, and often pay, to show us what we don’t know that we don’t know. They have usually been trained to reflect deeply on their own biases and projections, and while no human being can ever be one hundred percent clean of assumptions or issues of their own, they will much more likely be operating from a place of acceptance of their clients right to make their own decisions and weather whatever consequences that brings.
This piece is not intended as a harsh critique of those around us who are unaware of their own stuff. My hope is that in reading (and where useful, sharing) this way of thinking, you will begin to be able to discern what is yours and what might belong to them. In reflecting on interactions from this more objective place, you will be able to take things less personally, and feel a sense of peace and empowerment.
So much of my work is about intention, and unpicking the subtlety, complexity and nuance of our interactions with ourselves and others.
It boils down to this:
The better you know and understand yourself, the more open and ready you are for growth and for making conscious genuine change. The more you accept and honour yourself, the readier you are to create and uphold boundaries that serve you, navigate relationships in a healthy way, and make powerful decisions from a place of integrity.
Here’s to deeper connections and great conversations.