Why Do We Talk to One Another?

Open Question: Why do we talk to one another?

“…To varying degrees, there is an uncrossable chasm between you and everybody you care about.

There are two ways you can interpret this. One is the depressing route: to believe that your friends are not really your friends and that you don’t really know them. That you will never really know anybody at all. Or you can take the more optimistic route: it’s not that you know your friends less than you thought you did, it’s that you know strangers more. You don’t need to have an established relationship to help someone. Even transient moments have meaning.

This second route is the one my colleagues and I take every time we pick up the phone. Conversations on a phone helpline are different from normal conversations in two ways: we make few assumptions about the caller or their background, and our goal is for the caller to reach a better emotional state than when the conversation started.”

-Natalia Dashan, “Working on a suicide helpline changed how I talk to everyone.” Psyche.co. November 9, 2020.

I find this quote interesting. For me, conversations are about ideas. I talk to people because I want people to know something, or I want to know something. However, I generally view people’s emotional states as their own problem. Managing our emotions is, arguably, one of the defining features that separate human beings from animals.

On the other hand, I recognize that my view is certainly the minority, if not an outlier. Most people’s conversations is primarily emotional in nature, where they are talking about their feelings and want other people to talk about theirs.

My experience is shaped by my relationships with people with Cluster B personality disorders. I have many posts on this topic, e.g., A Narcissist’s Prayer, Hoodoos, Toxic People, Psychic Vampires, Sucking Black Holes, The Unhappy & The Unlucky, etc. The common tactic of people that manipulate others is to get them to talk about themselves, and then, they use this information to their advantage.

In my view, trying to manipulate someone else’s emotional state, even if you are doing so with their benefit in mind, is still manipulation. In certain circumstances, such as when you are working on a suicide help line, this may be appropriate behavior. People are calling in crisis are because they need help. You are there to help them. So, these kinds of interactions are kind of built in.

However, I’m not as comfortable thinking about helping the people in my life this way. This is the kind of behavior that underlies the paternalism that most parents engage in with their children, that what they are doing is for their own good. However, it is often “their own good” from our perspective and not theirs, which can often not be their good but our own. How is this different from the behavior of a Cluster B personality? I’m not sure it is different.

Yet, on the other hand, creating environments where people can grow and be supported emotionally is something most of us want. Individually, we can increase our vocabulary that helps us describe, understand and experience our feelings, using tools such as The Feeling Wheel or the guidebook, “Staying With Feelings“. But, maybe one piece I’ve been missing is that this kind of development ultimately has to be processed through our relationship with others.

The rub, and the thing that is very much not clear to me, is how do you make sure that what you are doing is about getting to a better emotional state for everyone rather than getting a better emotional state for ourselves or manipulating other people’s emotions for some other ends. I find this question difficult, one where I have thought it is best to let people deal with their own emotions and try not to be involved with it. But, I’m thinking, in this moment, that this is naive. Every conversation has an emotional component, and we cannot pretend that we don’t have, at least, some responsibility for the kind of emotional environment we are creating, both for ourselves and others.

I don’t have any answers here. However, I do think these are good questions worth much deeper exploration.

Staying With Feelings — Meg-John Barker & Focusing — Eugene T. Gendlin

“Stay with the feeling, with interested curiosity, not trying to change it, or to force it to communicate: just being with it gently and curiously. Try to understand it from it’s point of view. Notice any words, images, or metaphors that come to mind. Acknowledge everything that comes up, e.g., further feelings or lack of feelings.”

—Meg-John Barker, “Staying With Feelings.” Rewriting-the-Rules.com.

During conversations, ask yourself:

  1. How does it feel?
  2. Where is it in my body?
  3. What’s the best word to describe it?

Then, respond.

Asking these questions helps is to understand our emotional landscape, which feelings we tend to prefer and gives us an opportunity to think about the emotional content of what we are saying before speaking. It also points to the notion that, if we use Freud’s ideas of the conscious and unconscious mind, maybe the body is unconscious mind, the seat of feeling.

Recommend reading Meg-John Barker’s zine. If you want more detail, try The International Focusing Institute‘s Learning Focusing, Six Steps or read the original book, Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin.

I particularly like this quote from the Six Steps:

“One danger with a set of instructions is that people might use them to close off other ways. Anything human involves more than one method…

..Adopt a “split-level” approach to all instructions: On the one hand follow the instructions exactly, so that you can discover the experiences to which they point. On the other hand be sensitive to yourself and your own body. Assume that only sound expansive experiences are worth having. The moment doing it feels wrong in your body, stop following the instruction, and back up slightly. Stay there with your attention until you can sense exactly what is going wrong.

h/t DRMcIver’s Notebook.

Pity the Feeling

On top of Everest, in my mind,
a dark cloud, lightning blasts, 
a hurricane of controversies, unwind
below, nonsense sea, fish net casts.

The Sherpa is fishing about
prefers an understanding cartel.
Procrustean commodities—easier without 
a heart, a totalitarian Tinkerbell.

Feelings, the repugnant social Other,
are the dream within the dream.
Before we think, we must feel, brother,
a mind | heart alone, cannot reign supreme.

The Uselessness of Discussion to Find Truth

“‘Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears say ‘Let’s discuss this.’ Discussion, they claimed ‘are fine for roundabout talks, but philosophy throws its dice on another table. The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing.’”

—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari quoted in Richard Marshall, “HowTheLightGetsIn Festival, London 2018,” 3:AM Magazine. October 14, 2018.

Discussion is about building relationships and expressing our feelings. A discussion creates the bonds that bind a social set or tribe. It’s expressing an agreed upon shared truth and signals belonging, or not.

Even if we are expressing a personal truth, it is a small part of it. The personal truth worth hearing is often the secret we keep to ourselves. Speaking it to another would wound our self-conception and social standing. Typically, we only share the part that enhances those things.

We are rarely interested in hearing another’s truth, much less be changed by it because the truth shared by “discussion” is rarely worth hearing.

Emotional Regimes

“In September 2017, a screenshot of a simple conversation went viral on the Russian-speaking segment of the internet. It showed the same phrase addressed to two conversational agents: the English-speaking Google Assistant, and the Russian-speaking Alisa, developed by the popular Russian search engine Yandex. The phrase was straightforward: ‘I feel sad.’ The responses to it, however, couldn’t be more different. ‘I wish I had arms so I could give you a hug,’ said Google. ‘No one said life was about having fun,’ replied Alisa…

…’There is no such thing as a neutral accent or a neutral language. What we call neutral is, in fact, dominant’…

…In this way, neither Siri or Alexa, nor Google Assistant or Russian Alisa, are detached higher minds, untainted by human pettiness. Instead, they’re somewhat grotesque but still recognisable embodiments of certain emotional regimes – rules that regulate the ways in which we conceive of and express our feelings.”

—Polina Aronson, “The Quantified Heart.” Aeon. July 12, 2018.

Worry List

“Make a “to worry about” list. In a notebook or somewhere privately on your personal computer, make an ongoing list of things that you need to worry about. Jot down anything and everything that comes up in your day that’s bothering you. Make a special note if it’s something that keeps cropping up in your mind. Designate a time to sit down and review the list. When you do, you’ll realize most of it was nonsense. However, there will be a few points on there that require your attention. Instead of ruminating, make an action plan to address or resolve what’s bothering you. In the end, you’ll gain confidence both by addressing what’s weighing on you, and realizing how unimportant and irrelevant most of your worries are.”

—Brianna Wiest. “If You Want To Master Your Life, Learn To Organize Your Feelings.” Forbes. May 14, 2018.