How to Communicate with "Different" People
The mind is a marvel, isn’t it? Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, some things just don’t stick in our memories; while other times, with no effort at all, a certain thing we hear or read remains stuck for years?
Some time ago, I read something to which I keep coming back. In “My Father, My President,” Dorothy “Doro” Bush Koch tells a story of her brother George W. Bush and his relationship with his twin daughters Barbara and Jenna.
As Ms. Koch recounts, George and Laura Bush had their challenges raising teenagers, as most parents do. (Of course, now Barbara and Jenna are grown and successful in their respective endeavors.) During these trying years, though, their father would tell them something so simple yet so powerful: “I love you. There’s nothing you can do to make me stop loving you, so stop trying.”
What a wonderful thing for kids to know: that their parents love and accept them unconditionally! How powerful would it be for us to know that about all our connections, that we are accepted by others –unconditionally?
This concept reminds me of a time in the mid-eighties when I was a trainer for a well-known public speaking/people skills course. The old gentleman who trained me to be a trainer said: “Terry, to teach this course, you have to have a high level of acceptance.” I understood what he was saying then, but not as I do now. He was saying that to be effective, I had to be able to connect with everyone in the room. (Not just the people "like me.") And, without unconditional acceptance, that would be impossible.
Now, he was not saying that I had to approve of or endorse their personal lives, their opinions, their values, or everything they might say or do during the sessions. The gentleman was simply saying that I had to accept and respect everyone as a person, despite our differences. That, dear reader, is the key to connecting with others. Without acceptance and respect, there can be no connection, communication or education.
But let’s take these thoughts a step further. Unless we put our acceptance in practice—give it “hands and feet” so to speak-- it’s only empty talk. Acceptance must express itself in our actions. Let’s look at three important areas of action, as I relate them to a pair of special connections in my life.
Use Authentic Communication
Fred Rogers said: “We speak with more than our mouths. We listen with more than our ears.” Authentic communication involves the “more than.” It involves being in the moment and caring about someone. This is what happens for me on Monday mornings. When possible, I take one of our two granddaughters to breakfast. It’s a special time for connecting with our teens Amelia and Lola.
During these times, we play a communication game which both girls enjoy. We take turns asking the other a series of questions. It’s a time of sharing-- not discomfort or intimidation-- and the one who is asked the question always has the option of not answering. We keep our phones put away to give each other our full attention. Respect and acceptance are at a peak as we come to know each other’s likes, dislikes, feelings, opinions, and thoughts.
I use this to illustrate how easily we can connect with teens and people of all ages, backgrounds, cultures, and environments. It just takes time and acceptance, whatever approach we use: unconditional, non-judgmental acceptance!
Give Non-judgmental Responses
Someone has said that, if you don’t want to hear the answer, don’t ask the question. As you might expect, considering our age differences, on occasion the granddaughters and I have taken different points of view. Sometimes I just listen and learn. Sometimes we exchange viewpoints.
We don’t have to agree to remain connected, but we do have to remain non-judgmental. A judgmental attitude says, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” The message it sends to others often ends communication and severs connections when, if we thought carefully, that’s not at all what we want. What we all want is to be understood, respected, and accepted.
See Different Not Difficult
The third area of action for accepting others is to look for differences rather than difficulties. Of course, we should also look for commonalities.
However, here, we’re emphasizing differences.
We often forget that, because of background, culture, experiences, education, and a myriad of other circumstances, we are different. Because we forget this, we tend to reject others because we perceive them as simply trying to be difficult. Let me show you this concept in action.
After many years of marriage, Sherry has concluded that I do not know how to make a bed and never will learn. This is obvious because every time we partner in the task, she winds up doing my side over. However, in this, she just accepts that I’m different in the bed-making department. Never has she once said, “You’re just trying to be difficult.” I’ve just never gotten it down as to the “correct” way to do it. So, Sherry just accepts me and thankfully tolerates my lack of bed-making skills. With many connections, we can choose to view the person as difficult, which will possibly result in disconnect, or we can accept them as different and remain connected.
PEOPLE CONNECTOR: If we only connect with people "like us," it makes for a short list and limited communication.