How many conversations do you have in an average day? I'm not the most social person, but even I probably have more than I can count. In some ways, my day seems to be a series of conversations and interactions. So why do I, and many others, feel lonely?
Maybe you've felt what I have: that vague sense of dissatisfaction after an otherwise pleasant interaction. It has nothing to do with what you talked about—in fact, the conversation itself seemed completely harmless. No one was offended, no one got emotional; nothing seemed out of place. In fact, you realize that very little in that conversation really mattered to you.
This happens to me even in my closest relationships. I am around my husband for all but a few hours of the day. I have every opportunity to connect with him, to have great conversation—which we often do. But some days just feel flat; we spend time together, talk about our lives and express sincere appreciation for each other—and yet go to bed feeling less connected than usual. This experience is usually confusing and almost frustrating, because there is nothing to blame, nothing to define the problem. If this drift feels subtle even in a healthy marriage, imagine what it can do to the other relationships in life!
This is one example of what happens when conversation and interaction become ritualistic, rather than relational. Our culture emphasizes tasks and "doing" activities over feelings or thoughts, and this manifests in our emphasis of achievement. The American recipe for success inevitably includes efficiency and productivity, and nearly every aspect of our lives is marinated in these pungent spices.
Even in greeting each other, we enact an efficient form of conversation, as if to fulfill some requirement.
"How are you?"
The tolerable alternatives—particularly between college students—is "busy" or "tired." But how do these monosyllabic answers inform either person? They do not - instead, they provide the semblance of interaction without any of the messy details a real, deep conversation would require.
Even in lengthy interactions, I am often tempted to fall back onto familiar, acceptable paths of conversations. "Safe" topics tend to focus on schedule, events, work and interesting activities. When someone asks me how I am with the true purpose of hearing about my life, my response is usually a list of the things I've been doing lately. Most people I know respond similarly. In doing so, we deflect the conversation off of ourselves and onto external things we affect: we prevent the conversation from have a true, deep effect on us.
This is how relationships drift apart: we replace vulnerability with achievement, intentionality with efficiency. We turn people into tasks to be checked off the list.
My husband and I, being very sensitive to changes in our communication, have found some things that really help our interactions feel "real" and restore a sense of connection after a period of detachment. None of them are profound or revolutionary, but nothing about communication is. The problem comes not in knowledge, but in mindfulness and willingness to put in a bit of effort. Try keeping these three suggestions in mind:
1. Put away the distractions, especially if someone is obviously talking to you.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but from my experience this is a perfect application of that Bible verse about noticing the dust in someone else's eye while ignoring the log in your own (Matthew 7:3-5). I always notice when someone checks their phone while I'm talking to them—and often feel a little hurt—but feel totally justified in doing it myself. Unless I'm the only hypocrite in the room, this is a common habit, and an understandable one. But think about how appreciative you feel when a friend immediately puts aside their tasks to listen to you. That sets the ground for a better conversation, and a greater sense of connection. Even the mundane, casual conversations you have throughout the day will feel better if you save that text/tweet/time-check for after the conversation is over.
2. Respond with a feeling, rather than an action.
This was a major breakthrough for my husband (as an Enneagram type 3), who forgets daily that he has emotions. I've learned to ask him how he feels, rather than asking how he is doing; this initiates self-reflection, and often gives me a better sense what he needs from our interaction. Emotions, although uncomfortable, typically stem from a deeper part of our minds than actions do—this makes it harder for us to rely upon "canned" or rote responses. Not every conversation needs to be an emotional one, but if you want to feel truly connected to your friends and family, skip "how was your day" and go straight to "what are you feeling today?"
3. Have courage: take the first step.
If you've ever tried a trust fall, you know that catching someone feels a lot more secure than being caught. But if you want to have fulfilling, meaningful conversations, you might have to initiate vulnerability, and trust the other person to respond positively. Routine conversations—about work, school, etc.—are comfortable because they are reliable. I know that if I complain about too much homework, my friend will respond with sympathy and commiseration. But what if I change the script and take it deeper? The fear is that I will be rejected, or even ignored. But I could also be affirmed, or create a space for that friend to express their own deep thoughts and needs. Shallow interactions may be safe, but they allow no room to build security and trust. Which would you prefer?
In closing this article, I ask my friends and family to hold me to better communication. "Intentionality" and "vulnerability" are buzz words, concepts that are much easier to talk about than to actualize. Yet they truly are the foundation of good relationships, and the last thing I want is to look back on my life and realize that I exchanged the raw, messy goodness of friendship for productivity and routine. I will close with the timeless words of C.S. Lewis, from The Four Loves:
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."