The Problem with Communication Problems

4.21.16 communication problemsCommunicating with others – our wishes, our desires, our irritations and annoyances – should be easy, right?  I mean, just spit out what you need to say to the other person and you should be easily understood – what’s so hard about that?

We can all talk the same language, yet communicating with others is our biggest problem, from effecting our day-to-day happiness point of view.  We can be having a perfectly lovely day, then bam! – A communication irritation or blowup happens, and the lovely day is ruined.  It could be an irritation in the form of a co-worker, or a boss, or a sales person, or a moody teen, or a meddling in-law, or an unkind remark from a friend.

There are so many interaction stumbles and landmines in getting through a day safely.  And when something bad communication-wise happens, we should just brush it off as not our problem, but instead we make it our problem by blowing it up in our mind, ruminating on what happened, ruining our own day when the mind holds on and won’t let it go, replaying the interaction over and over.

Or there are the big ongoing problems that more than ruin a day, they can ruin years when unaddressed.  You know what I mean – that boss (bad bosses are the #1 complaint of employees) that is totally inept in managing people and you swear he dislikes you more than the others…

Or that mother-in-law that picks and picks and won’t leave it alone, because you never measure up as good enough for her precious.  And you never will.

Then there’s that neighbor/co-worker/”friend” who annoys you plenty, yet you suffer with the annoyances because you just can’t seem to confront a personality clash that won’t change and so you try to avoid the person, and stay annoyed with each interaction.

Communication problems are a big impediment to life’s happiness.  And also a big impediment to success, as having good communication skills are noted to be critical to being promoted at work.  All leaders attribute their success to communication skills as top of the list.

So what’s the problem?  Why won’t you simply address the person directly, explain the issue, and make the problem go away?  Well, here’s the initial problem – most people are nonconfrontational; they hate to mention something unpleasant, feeling that their happiness isn’t as important as keeping the peace with the other person.  So they say nothing and let the situation fester, rather than bothering the other person with something perhaps trivial or foolish.  But is it really trivial?  Not if it bothers you greatly, it isn’t.

Another problem with problems is that many won’t ask for needed help – asking may be perceived as taking away from self-esteem.   They feel like they should know how to do fix the situation on their own and don’t want to appear stupid to the other person by requesting help.

Then there are the stubbornly independent souls in the world who want to take care of things themselves.  Since no one else has better ideas then them, they refuse any offered help and never ask.  Besides, others may take that condescending tone, belittling the request as ridiculous, which is something they couldn’t bear.

How about when you notice someone with a communication problem and find that you simply have to offer your insightful advice, without being asked for it?  Not a good idea, since unsolicited advice tends to make the other person defensive, which results in self-protection measures, i.e. putting the blinders on.  “What problem?  I think you’re mistaken and you should keep your opinions to yourself!”

Or the alternative reaction to hearing about an unsuspected problem is: “What did I do wrong?  What’s wrong with me?”  When perhaps it’s not you at all, it’s the other person, it’s circumstances, it’s a misunderstanding – but still the failure is internalized when pointed out.

What to do, what to do?  While there is no single answer, since every person is different, making each situation unique, still there are some steps that everyone can do to help resolve communication problems:

  • Mentally rehearse in advance what you want to say and the potential responses.
  • Pick a good time to “chat about something” (language is important to not get         defenses up).
  • Use a calm tone (and maintain it no matter how upset the situation makes you).
  • Make a reasonable request for an immediate first step in changing the behavior.
  • Include a single light touch with your hand when you talk to the person.

The power of the touch generates an experiential sympathetic reaction which supports helping out; we’re all human and are all susceptible to this phenomena.

Try it and report back how it worked for you.


And the Right Word is… a Word of Your Creation?

4.15.16 new wordsThat word you’re searching for…it’s right there, on the tip of your tongue… it’s… it’s… wait for it…. it’s – nonexistent!  Or at least it’s not in your vocabulary bank.  Maybe you’re searching for a word that you know the concept you want to convey, but just can’t find the correctly nuanced word for it?

In regular conversation I happened to say, “Debi muckled right on to the idea…” and my daughter looked at me quizzically, “Muckled? – is that even a word???” Others present assured her that it was; even my other 29-yr old daughter knew what ‘muckled’ meant, and proceeded to explain it to her younger sister, as meaning: to clamp on tight.

My thinking was that ‘muckled’ came from ‘muck, which is a real word, but it turns out that the verb ‘to muckle’ is Maine slang, not in the dictionary as legit – oops, my bad. (We live in Maine, which like many other regions of the country, has its own fun with language.)

But beyond the state borders, it occurred to me that since words are often made up for some useful purpose, with some catching on and entering the lexicon (ahh, there’s a good word), perhaps there is a formula that can be devised for word creation.

Yeah, there’s “darn” to replace “damn” and “heck” to replace “hell” but those softer words lack effectiveness.  They are so old as to sound goofy when used today.  How about some words with real punch, for our strongest feeling words (which are usually the obscene, uncouth, bad words).

Here’s an example –you feel very strongly about something and want to emphasis your feeling, but you don’t want to swear, which is too crass. But oh! swearing certainly does get good and immediate attention: “That f–king dog just sh-t on the carpet again!” (Happens more often than not at our house.)

So, is it just as effective to say, “That fricking dog just crapped on the carpet again!” ?  I think so; has a good ring to it, ‘fricking’ instead of the hard swear.  ‘Fricking’ is not a legit dictionary word, but is recognized slang and understood by everyone.  ‘Freaking’ also works here, although ‘freaking’ is a real word, but here used is a slang context, “I’m going to lose it if that freaking dog dumps on our carpet one more time!” said in a loud yell, with strong vocal volume – yes, very effective, without having to swear.

So if ‘f—king’ can be replaced byfricking’ and ‘freaking’, maybe the formula is: keep the first and last consonants in place and add the ending, if there is an ending, to get the substitute word.

Let’s see if the formula works with another colorful word: “That’s one b–ching ride!”  changes to “That’s one beeching ride!”  or even, “That’s one bunching ride!”  Hmm.  Maybe.  Or how about in another scenario, “Don’t be such a beech!”  “What a bunch she turned out to be!”  I know, I know, the popular version is ‘beee-itttch’, but we’re going formulaic here.

It reminds me of when my kids were little and I told daughter #1 that she couldn’t say “shut up” to her older brother.  So she quickly improvised, and will all the same force and venom, she screamed at him, “gud up!”  She knew that almost any word that’s close can substitute nicely, with the right tone, pitch, speed and volume.

It can also go in the other direction.  When I told the kids to apologize to their siblings, they would mutter a quick, “sorry”, which was void of all feeling.

Communication really is about tone; tone adds all the meaning to words themselves.  Which is why email is so hard – no tone = implied tone by the reader = takes things very off course.  This often happens in a void – who has time to double back on a sent email to see if feathers were ruffled by a word or two taken wrong?

My advice on important emails: put yourself in a terrible frame of mind, your beloved dog just died, then re-read the email from this perspective and see if it reads the same.

Language is dynamic, ever changing, evolving with the times.  Have some fun with it and be a master by creating some fun adjectives to use in your speech instead of habitually reusing tired old cliché expressions.  Please do me the biggest favor and replace “have a nice day” or “at the end of the day”, or I’ll have to, as my verbally strange mother used to say, send you to the moon eating your own teeth.


Open Mouth, Insert Foot

4.7.16 foot and mouth diseaseI just finished delivering a full day seminar on verbal communication (all my workshops and trainings are about some form of communication) and I left the audience with a list of key takeaways, one of which was: Think about what the words are doing before they come out of your mouth.

Before you say them, consider the impact the words will have.  The brain moves 7x faster than the mouth, with average speaking times of 115 wpm, but thinking speeds of approx. 825 wpm – resulting in a sizeable 710 wpm gap.  The brain can do a whole lot of split-second thinking before the mouth has opened to utter a sound.  Use that time to think about what the words that are about to come forth may or may not DO.

What impact do you want your words to have?  Have you given them any thought at all, or are you prone to just rambling out anything that pops into your head as good enough to say?  What effect do you want your words to have?  Take the time to choose thoughtfully.

If the intended impact is to help the person, good for you.  Help away.

If the words will do nothing, bite your tongue.  They are probably just coming out to show off how smart you are or to build your personal self-esteem, to make you feel important. If they don’t do any good to help the situation, why say them?

Case in point: a couple were expecting their first child, a product of in-vitro fertilization.  As they told about the ordeal of getting pregnant, were past the tough phase, and excitedly awaiting the birth date, stories started to circulate of a higher incidence of issues with children born in-vitro than with natural births.  Without a crystal ball to the future and no means to change anything that was yet to be, what good did such tragic thoughts do?  No good at all and better left unsaid.

If the words have the effect of potentially harming the person, consider, is that your intent?  If you later end up apologizing, “I’m sorry, I didn’t think…”, well then you should think; you have plenty of time to think, you just need to get in the habit of doing so.

Think about all the times we speak to just further our own cause.  Someone says something, so we feel the need to one-up them and tell about our better story, “Oh, you think what happened to you was bad.  Let me tell you about what happened to ME…

Or someone makes a remark and you simply have to add your superior knowledge of the subject to let them know how brilliant you are.  Stop – does it add anything to the conversation?  Perhaps it does, in which case, by all means add it, but do it in a courteous way, not in a “ha, take that!” way.  You know what I mean.

I challenge you to put the following rule into your repertoire: What I am about to say should either add meaningfully to the conversation or help the other person in some way.  If it is just to make me look smarter or make my ego feel better, I don’t need/won’t say it.

Good luck, if you happen to have an unfortunate case of Foot in Mouth disease.


The Real Meaning is Likely the Opposite

3.31.16 speaking in oppositesLet me get this straight: when the weatherman says it’s going to be partly cloudy, it really means: mostly sunny – is that about right?!?  That is indeed correct, because ‘partly’ is the lesser of the whole, and ‘mostly’ is the part that’s not being mentioned; partly cloudy is code for mostly sunny.  Whoa, I’m confused – why doesn’t the weatherman then just say what he means, which is mostly sunny, instead of talking in riddles and expecting you to figure it out?  That makes no sense at all that the TV viewer needs to be a riddle master to see the obvious…

The doctor does the same thing when he gives you a diagnosis:you have a 20% chance of the cure not working” – yeah, Doc, but that also means I have an 80% chance of it working!  (And 80% is way bigger than 20%, so I’ll take those odds, thank you very much!)

When my late SIL read about her lung cancer survival odds, it was a 1% chance of living for 5 years.  Of course the opposite is a rather daunting statistic: 99% chance of dying within 5 years.  So when things are looking especially grim, the best lipstick to put on the pig is the smallest number.

But invariably, the smallest number is used, in good and bad cases, which makes absolutely no sense.  In bad case scenarios, the small number can represent the pessimistic view – it’s partly cloudy because a small cloud may end up raining on your picnic.  The optimistic view that isn’t taken is that it will be mostly sunny, a far greater chance of a lovely sunny picnic experience.  The small number can also represent the optimistic view – you have a very small chance of surviving this devastating disease, with the looming pessimistic view as overwhelmingly large.

In good case scenarios, the small number can represent the pessimistic view – there is a small chance of failing.  But the optimistic view is so much better, yet not mentioned: you have a great chance of succeeding!  The small number can also represent the optimistic view – a small number of people win the lottery, with the more likely case of the majority of people losing. Repeatedly losing, but no matter. The ads cheerfully read: Imagine what you will do with the multi-million dollar jackpot; you can’t win if you don’t get in!  And in small print: chances of winning are 1 in a gazillion.

So why the default to the small number most of the time, in good and in bad scenarios?

Glass half empty or half full?  The cautious realists among us would say ‘half empty’; the joyful optimists chirp ‘half full!’  It’s all in your point of view.

We are naturally geared to be fearful of losing anything, to hate loss over potential gain, to be wary of anything that appears too good to be true.  We are natural worriers and born skeptics, especially in today’s world rife with scammers. It’s good to exercise proper caution.

But we also love novelty, the opportunity that’s right around the corner, if only we have our eyes open wide enough to see it.  That’s the glass half full crowd.  Naïve and gullible?  Maybe sometimes.  But also lovable and happy, with their rose colored glasses and full of zest for life.

The moral is to look to the other side and don’t be fooled by the small number all the time, just because that’s the only number given.  Think: what does the opposite – the large number – say?  Which number, small or large, is better for me to pay attention to in this particular situation right now?

Every coin has a flip side, but you have to remember to turn it over and look at the other side.


Speaking in the Extreme

3.24.16 extremesI live in Maine so I’m expected to eat and enjoy all things fish – especially lobster! – which I really don’t.  Over the weekend I attended a workshop and of course in light conversation with another participant the loving fish subject came up, to which I admitted, “I actually hate lobster!”  The ensuing conversation went like this:

“Hate?  You don’t really mean ‘hate’ do you?  Do you really HATE lobster?”

“Yes, I really do, I hate lobster.”

“No you don’t; don’t you really mean that you dislike it, but you don’t truly hate it?”

“No, I hate it.”

“I can’t think that you hate it; hate is such a harsh word; it makes me feel bad just hearing it.”

“OK, fine, I intensely dislike lobster.”

So what’s going on here?  No one cares enough about my food preferences to argue with me about how much I don’t care for fish; why the persistent argument?

This is a typical case with most people who care more about themselves, while professing to care about the other person, in their communication.  ‘It’s all about me’ dictates that you want to get your own way, force the other person to cry ‘Uncle’. Once you put a stake in the ground, you are reluctant to back down.  And the deeper you push the point, the harder it is to withdraw.

This also illustrates that most people do not and will not actively listen,  for to actively listen to another person you must have a willingness to be changed by what you hear – the person talking to me was having nothing of it!  Her be willing to change?  Heck, no – more like, her trying to force me to change: I won’t take no for an answer, you will back down off your hate position and admit that it’s really ‘dislike’; since ‘hate’ makes me uncomfortable, you are going to accept my point of view and agree that I’m right – which, by definition, means that you’re wrong. Yikes, and you talk about harsh?!

For my part, I was more fascinated by what this exchange taught me about her personality, since we learn about others by their behavior and their language. She also had the opportunity to learn about me by my communication, which I tried to point out: “You know, really listening to the words that people use tells you much about the way the person thinks, which leads to understanding their behavior.  When someone regularly talks in extremes (‘hate’ is an extreme word), beyond the specific meaning, just the use of extremes tells you things about the person.

Talking in extremes (“the absolute best/worst thing that ever happened”, “the most brilliant/stupidest idea ever uttered”, etc) tells you that the person is a big thinker, moving from one end of a possibility spectrum to the far opposite.  It tells you that this person likely doesn’t settle and will work for something that they really believe in (but will quickly abandon something uninteresting), so getting them vested in an idea gains you a champion.  Talking in extremes is the mark of an extrovert who puts it all out there, a colorful person with a strong personality.

But my conversation partner that day was not only insistent on getting her own way, she was also not into learning about communication; definitely not open-minded to be at all changed by what she was hearing.  She just wanted WIIFM – which was to get her own way.

How about you?  Are you actively listening and learning? (and sharing?)


Listen Up!

3.17.16 Listen up“Hey, are you listening to me?”

“Yeah, I heard every word.  I’m not deaf!”

“Oh, I believe you heard me alright, but that doesn’t mean you were listening.”

So what does it mean to listen, to really listen – the top communication skill needed to build strong rapport – what really is the difference between simply hearing and really listening?

Some might tell you that ‘active listening’ involves repeating back what the other person said, in your own words, not just parroting back.  Or it involves asking open-ended questions that draws the other person’s conversation out further, proof positive that you were listening, or how could you ask such a thoughtful question?  Or listening involves sending specific body language signals of leaning in, direct eye contact, and a slight head tilt (favoring your better ear, to catch every bit of dialogue).  While these elements are part of conveying real listening, elements alone do not fully capture the concept, the essence, which is best defined as:

You’re not really listening unless you’re willing to be changed by what you’re hearing.

Beautifully simple, it involves having the right attitude, a mindset that says, “I’m flexible and open minded enough to learn something here that I may not have known or believed before; I’m willing to change my thinking.

Why do we want to know how to listen ‘properly’?  Because listening is the single most important communication skill you have in your rapport toolbox, and most people don’t know how to use it properly and/or don’t use it enough.

There are many impediments to listening, mainly:

– We are too busy thinking about what we’re going to say when it’s our turn to speak, to focus on what the other person is saying.  So we may catch bits of it – “Wait, back up a bit, I missed something – what did you just say?”  Or more likely, it just goes right by, because truthfully we don’t care about the details that they’re going on and on and on about… [stage hog]

– We are too insecure, taking things personally (especially from certain people) instead of as the innocent comments they probably are, then quickly jump into defensive mode.  And you know that it’s impossible to listen when you are defensive; you’re too busy thinking about how to mount a good defense to possibly hear what the other person is saying. [defensive]

– We are easily distracted, there is just so much on our mind, and hey! what was that that just went by??  Lacking the bandwidth to process that the other person is saying, especially if it’s at all complicated, is an exercise in futility to listen, but we don’t want to be rude… [dazed and confused]

–  We are listen carefully, but not to add value to the exchange, but to trip the other person up when they err – “Hold on!  A minute ago you said (X), and now you’re saying (y), so which one is it?” This kind of listening is valueless and does nothing helpful. [gotcha!]

We all have 2 ears and 1 mouth for a reason – you’ve heard this maxim before.  Listen twice as much as you speak.  If you practice this faithfully, you will be loved, because so few do it; most instead talk way too much, especially about themselves.  Which is the subject for next time: how to communicate well with what comes out of our mouths.

So, can your listening skills be improved upon?  You’re welcome.


You Don’t Get a Do-Over On Making a First Impression

3.10.16 impressionsImpressions count.  A lot.  You communicate so much through your choice of how you present publically, yet do you take it as seriously as you should?  Consistently?

Here’s the thing about impressions and communication: we all see exactly what we want to see.  When our mind is already decided – and our mind decides in the blink of an eye – then we just look to confirm what we already believe.  We love to be right and hate to think that we made a wrong call.  So those impressions, especially that first one, really counts.  Because it lasts, and first impressions are nearly impossible to change.  We are so reluctant to give up that warm fuzzy feeling of being right.

Couple the confirmation bias with another human trait: we are wired to focus on the negative, and now you see the problem.  Much as we claim that we are objective (“Who me?  I can keep an open mind”) about things all the time, we can’t help but be judgmental.  We have an opinion on everything, in the name of honesty, and it’s typically not positive:  “Here’s what I think…”, “Why would you do that?”, “Not a good idea, IMHO”, “He’s such a (fill in the blank)”, etc.

We see a man with wild hair and a long scraggly beard, so what do we immediately think?  ‘Mountain man’, potentially mentally deranged, with increasing feelings of discomfort and lack of safety, as the space between you and wild man closes in.  Not very positive.  Why the unwarranted judgments, based merely on an impression without any prior negative experience with the man? Impressions, the emotions we form when we see something, trump logic.

After quickly sizing up the situation, our thoughts immediately turn negative as a means of self-protection.  If this approaching wild looking man is dangerous, we need to be ready to defend, fight, or flee. He is potentially a threat and we need to keep our guard up. Way up. So we stay vigilantly negative and wary.

If the impression was different, if the unfamiliar male was clean shaven, neatly groomed and well dressed, well now things are very different.  The impression would not be of a potential threat but of a potential opportunity, and we would smile, relax and feel safe.  This bias, called the halo effect, benefits the attractive, allowing good looking criminals to easily fool people because they ‘didn’t look like a criminal’.

When you are presenting publically you have the opportunity to give yourself an advantage every day, with every interaction.  But do you take the opportunity seriously or do you squander the opportunity carelessly?  “I’m comfortable in my sweats and old jeans” may be true, but more true is that credibility and trustworthiness is wrapped up in the business ‘uniform’.

Darn, am I ‘on’ all the time, can never relax, and have to keep up appearances around the clock?  Hopefully, the real you is genuine and you’re not putting on a show of charm, but, yes, whenever you are out in public, your personal brand is open for others to form impressions around the clock.  Brand consistency, since you never know who you’re going to meet or when/where.

You can’t turn others’ impression off, and there is no such thing as a 2nd 1st impression.  When I was working in financial services, several of the young interns thought it was OK to party hard at night at the local bars.  Big mistake.  The advice then was: ‘don’t behave in any way that a picture of you published on the front page of the paper would need an apology’.  With social media and cell phone cameras in every hand, this is even more important advice to adhere to today.

(The corollary to that was: don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to see published in the headlines – updated today to: that you wouldn’t want to see tweeted — but that’s a whole other post.)


Don’t Call Me That!

nametag2Here comes a pet communication peeve of mine – I absolutely hate when total strangers, usually female but both genders offend, call me “Hon” or “Dear” –  ewww.  Yeah, yeah they don’t mean to offend; they don’t think they’re being offensive.  But really – boundaries with your language, please!  You can’t take a term of endearment (I call my husband ‘Hon’) and bandy it about so loosely that the term is rendered meaningless.  Not fair, and not anyone’s right to ruin.

You might think that people who deal with a variety of people every day in a service industry, i.e. waitress, retail sales – would be good in their communication skills, but clearly many (most?) are not.  Of course I could just ignore your ignorance, if it just wasn’t so annoying.  And I could logically tell myself that your language is just a habit you’ve developed and you don’t even hear yourself anymore, you’ve been saying it for so long (a deeply entrenched habit, hard to break, like swearing).  Logically I know that a term of endearment from a stranger is meaningless, but certain language pushes buttons for certain people that, logical or not, is hard to emotionally dismiss.

Maybe “Hon” and “Dear” are not derogatory words to get upset about, not containing negative connotation, so what’s the offense?   It just bugs me when people are not authentic, and are clearly not being genuine.  And no one genuinely has intimate affection for a total stranger.  I automatically don’t like you when you use that language, which you think is harmless, but pretends for a closeness that is not only not real, is not wanted, and is obviously false.

So why do we do it – why do we label people with our communication?  We do it for effect – we want them to feel a certain way (usually pleasant), to flatter, to endear.  All good reasons, when properly utilized to the right audience.  Research tells us that people love to hear their name spoken, as their favorite word.  When we don’t know their name to address them by, what should be substituted?  Commonly that answer politely is, “Miss” or “Madam” or “Sir”.

With guys, “Sir” is easy and respectful.  But watch out with females – not so easy to determine the age line between “Miss” and “Madam”.  My 20-something daughters often hear “Madam” (which they hate, and they look young too!) and I still can get “Miss” (yes!).  The safe route with all females is “Miss” across the board for all ages; you can’t offend, and will bring a smile to all seniors J

One way to use labels to your advantage is when you want to influence, use a positive label.  Humans tend to live up to positive labels when assigned, and are pleased to think they possess the positive trait once stated.  This is why parents leave their kids with, “You’re my good boy” and the child does not disappoint.  A negative label, “Don’t be bad while we’re out” has the same, though undesirable, effect.  Watch your words.  They are powerful.

So when I tell you, smart readers, that you will learn much about communication and honing your communication skills, by reading my blog and website, you know what to do 🙂


Calling All Those Born in 1958 – YOU?

1958 clubWhat we know for certain is that you create your own reality with your thoughts, and positive thoughts are certainly more enjoyable than negative thoughts!

Are you the type that thinks everything is going to hell in a handbasket and things are at a low point for you, because that’s how your life just is?  You always get the shit end of the stick, can never catch a lucky break, and the outlook for a turnaround is pretty grim?  If so, I have some bad news for you from Mr. Henry Ford, who called it decades ago: yes, you’re right.

If, on the other hand, you have a positive outlook and know that any setback is just temporary and things are pretty good in your fairly rosy life then maybe you can hear Mr. Ford calling from the distant past, to tell you: you’re also right!

The communication ‘trick’ is to know that you can create your own destiny, chart your own future happiness, make a bright future simply by willing it to be so.  Really?  Do you believe it?  Or are you the perennial doubter?  Well… if you are a negative thinker, you know what will happen.  So what do you have to lose by remaining positive?  Nothing, with everything to gain.

Not to say that you should be that delusional person who thinks that all good things will just land in your lap without some hard work attached, because that’s idiocy, and a positive idiot is still an idiot.

But always looking on the bright side, repeatedly telling yourself positive thoughts about how you’ve worked hard and deserve the success that’s coming your way (instead of negative thoughts about how others are better than you are), keeping a happy outlook – now that’s self-communication that works.  Because a positive person is happy.

So what does this have anything to do with those born in 1958?  Well, surprise – it’s your MAGIC YEAR!  The concept of a magic year is the year when your birth year is the same as your age, which means that this year during 2016, those who were born in 1958 will turn 58 years old.

Which is just another reason to celebrate, whether you believe in mysticism or not, to have fun with the idea and have a great upcoming year – don’t waste the special full year of magic, because it won’t come around again for you.

Enjoy a great year all you special ’58 Clubbers 🙂


I’m OK, You’re OK

2.18.16 OK.jpgBumps and bruises are a frequent part of childhood. Parents typically note minor incidents by declaring “you’re OK”, so the child doesn’t become overly engaged in lamenting a boo-boo.  Who wants to raise a hypochondriac who cries at every little pinprick?

As my first grandchild toddled through her early years, when she would fall down, I heard her immediately reassuring herself aloud, “I’m OK!”  The parental lesson internalizes.  Children learn to self-soothe.

Fast forward to adulthood, and that “I’m OK!” is pretty fast to fly off adult lips, especially when we trip in public and land on the ground.  Partially we say it as a hopeful wish, and partially it emerges to spare us of embarrassment.  Somehow it has become humorous to see people fall (with the exception of the elderly) and who wants to be the butt [pun intended] of others’ laughter?

The non-life threatening physical action of falling diminishes us, akin to losing something besides our balance.  We have lost our prowess, our agility, our adeptness – our clumsiness is laughable, and the speedy I’m OK!” is really an apology for the momentary loss.

Rather than a young child who wants to call attention to himself by crying, the stoic adult doesn’t want any attention called to his loss of control.  The adult “I’m OK!” is an automatic response to self-protect against a loss of self-esteem.  Being laughed at does an amazingly effective job of knocking your self-esteem down.  Then the incident gets repeated in conversation, and the joke is really on you.

Moving beyond physical falling, there is also emotional lapses.  When something traumatic happens to us, those near to us ask, “Are you OK?”  This is a stock question – what else is there to say?  And it’s really a rhetorical question, yet it hangs there waiting for an answer. (check the ‘I asked if she was ok’ box)

And usually the answer is “Yeah, I’m OK” (translation: “I will be, but this is something I have to get through by myself”, or “Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know, I’ve never been down this road before, but I’ll figure it out”, or “No, I’m not OK, but you don’t have the answers, so thank you, but unfortunately you don’t have the help I need.”)

The other person feels relief that they asked and received back the satisfactory answer.  But unlike physical falls, emotional falls are much harder to gauge in severity of damage.  The person may look OK on the outside, even over time their outward demeanor may read as fine, but then there’s that self-protection kicking in.  Are they really recovered, or are they still crying at night?

Another dimension is when emotional loss creates physical impairment – the strong mind body connection.  There is a recognized causal link between the death of a loved one and survivor illness for up to 6 months.  The immune system is simply compromised by the toll of the grieving process, in relative degree to the depth of the lost relationship.

My sister-in-law died 3 months ago.  Since then, her mother has been in and out of the hospital with bronchitis and other breathing/’winter flu’ issues.  And her only sibling brother’s back issues recently flared up with a vengeance, worse than ever before. Why doctors don’t take this mitigating factor into account I don’t understand, yet they repeatedly fail to account for it.

When you communicate OK-ness, what do you really want the other person to know?  And when you are the questioner, perfunctoriness of the question aside, remember that the traumatized person has a lot going on, not the least of which is trying to figure out proper decorum and what they should respond, which is not necessarily the true response. A truly helpful person would be vigilant and come back to the communication a little later and with a different approach.

What say you on this topic?