By Jason Shan
COMMUNICATION IN MY LIFE: My oldest brother once said that in high school, we often make “friends of convenience.” Not to say that these kinds of friends are bad per se, but that in such relationships, it doesn’t really matter who the other person is, just that there is another person. Being a high school student myself, I wanted to examine my own relationships, leading me to read the course reader for Stanford’s “Interpersonal Dynamics” class, recommended by my other older brother.
As someone who recharges through being alone, I have always had an aversion to even the thought of making conversation with others, and as a result, I became more reticent and withholding. I have been conditioned by society to esteem the ability to suppress negative emotions in all given situations with the “think before you speak” mantra. While the maxim has its objective truths—that careful consideration should be made regarding your thoughts, reactions, and feelings in order to formulate and express words that are congruent with your inside nature—such ideals preached by society instilled within me a different interpretation: to say only what is necessary, and no more.
It was only recently that I started to recognize my mental filters which seize any thoughts that were not necessarily harmful, but had no definite purpose, and dispose of them. I often found that conversation with peers would be stilted; after discussing any pertinent topics, such as collaborating on a school project, a silence would ensue. While I could make conversation given an immediate subject, it was difficult for me to create and start new topics that were not contextualized in my immediate surroundings. Coming to this realization, the summer before my junior year I resolved to curb the intensity of my filter through introspection, which ultimately had profound effects on my social connections.
“The Interpersonal Dynamics Reader” encapsulates many of the learnings I took away from experiences in leaving behind my filter, but also elaborates and details other means to more effectively communicate in many situations. A disclaimer before I talk about the book: I have yet to fully grasp all its concepts and pithy, thought-provoking points. I offer this review as a lens to my interpretation of the book and the role of communication in my life.
One particular truth that I had to come to terms with was the fact that religiously obeying the ideology of masking negativity also dampened my proclivity to express all other emotions. When I did shout or scream or cry, these already displeasurable sentiments were compounded by the shame and guilt that came with the thought that I shouldn’t feel the way I do. This gave rise to a notion that is addressed by “The Interpersonal Dynamics Reader”: the belief that emotions have a sort of validity. I believed that my negative emotions simply weren’t valid. However, my emotions are my truth: the very fact that I am experiencing them is indisputable. To cover it with a veil of societal dictations—to even simply categorize emotions as “good” or “bad”—prevents open communication between myself and others, as well as discordant communication between my mind and my feelings. There is always some reason behind each emotion; this reason isn’t necessarily a very logical or rational one, but it is there. You cannot disregard the existence of any emotion, whether you feel it is socially acceptable or not. It is only when we come to analyze and understand our emotions that we can then take the best course of action.
Communication is a difficult process, and as emphasized by “The Interpersonal Dynamics Reader”, it encompasses a whole lot more than one party talking and the other passively listening. The short reading is packed with a lot more insight into how to develop deep and rich relationships with others through communication, but some of the lessons which deeply imprinted upon me in addition to the ones mentioned above were the development of a behavior repertoire, the feedback process, and assumptions that fill the void.
BEHAVIOR REPERTOIRE: Being able to express a whole range of emotions is an important skill. It doesn’t mean that all such expressions will be necessarily utilized, but just that you have the ability to utilize them if needed in a given situation. Adding more behaviors to your behavior repertoire is wholly different than changing your existing behavior; it’s more so bringing in other behaviors that are at your disposal to be used in certain contexts. Personally, I have never learned how to properly express “extreme” emotions, such as deep gratitude, happiness, sadness, and rage. I revered mediocrity, because I thought mediocrity would never offend anyone. On the contrary, as the reader points out, we often pay a lot of attention to the negative outcomes that result from speaking our mind that we don’t see how withholding our emotions can also worsen relationships.
I recall an argument I had with my mom; while the exact content of the argument is now lost to me, what did stick with me as we pulled up into our driveway after having a tense back-and-forth, were my mom’s words: “I wish you would shout or cry more sometimes, because then I would at least know how you feel.”
Though the number of instances in which I yelled and hollered is small, in turn, I have realized that the number of times in which I full-belly laughed or plainly showed my thrill and excitement is even smaller. It’s not to say that I have never felt such euphoria, but that I have largely suppressed if not the act of feeling or acknowledging it, then the expression of it. In my first half of high school, I found myself questioning times that I felt content. I was unsure what I was really feeling because looking inward on such positive feelings felt foreign. The reader does greatly emphasize a reflection on cognition and emotions; throughout my life I have subconsciously compartmentalized certain feelings, but was rarely consciously aware. Just like how I would give emotions a subjective rating of whether they fell in line with societal propriety, ignoring my emotive side can prove to have large consequences and prevent more informed decision-making.
THE FEEDBACK PROCESS—A TENNIS COURT ANALOGY: The feedback process is an important one to building an open and trusting relationship. Giving and receiving feedback helps each person to understand the impact of their actions on the other, and build up the relationship to be an honest one. It can be hard to give feedback in a way that is genuine but not accusatory, and it can be hard to receive feedback. “The Interpersonal Dynamics Reader” comments on both the giving and receiving aspects of the feedback process.
The analogy of communication as a tennis court can be made, with two sides facing each other and a net dividing them. In a vis-a-vis conversation, your side is that which you know is true: your emotions and feelings and intentions. On the other side of the net is the emotions and intentions of the other person. When giving feedback, it is often best to stay on your side of the net and state how you feel. If the second party has made you uncomfortable, express this feeling, but don’t make any attributions or assumptions as to why the other person acted in an uncomfortable manner. While the other person may feel defensive, you have not caused them to feel violated and pigeonholed into your own presumptions. You can never be wrong about how you feel, but you can be wrong in your own mental model of how the other person feels and what their intentions are.
When receiving feedback, there are some common traps that we fall into, and one of mine is the decision to quickly and seemingly wholeheartedly accept feedback. Receiving feedback often makes me feel ashamed, so I experience an overwhelming desire to “get it over with” by agreeing with the given feedback. However, as pointed out by “The Interpersonal Dynamic Reader”, this prevents true consideration of the feedback at hand. Instead, I need to fully try to understand where the feedback-giver is coming from, and take a few seconds to ponder and comprehend the feedback before speaking my thoughts.
FILLER ASSUMPTIONS: Related to giving feedback and staying on one’s side of the net is the use of assumptions. In a lack of information about someone, I’m now conscious of just how many assumptions I make about such a person. Given one instance of a certain behavior, I’m quick to attribute that behavior to their fundamental nature as a person. However, individuals are so much more complex than what others often simplify them to be. That’s why it is so important to restrain yourself from simplifying individuals to basic assumptions or stereotypes, and—like in the feedback process—for the individual to express their emotions and intents, else a “void” is created where others are prone to read between the lines through an assumptive lens.
There was a time many years ago when my family had traveled to a shop, and the shop owner casually commented on how because my twin and I were living in the same bedroom, our room must be messy. Neither my twin nor I dignified these words with a response; for me, it was because I felt quite indignant at the assumption, and in deciding not to say anything unkind to the shop owner whom I didn’t know, I said nothing at all. Afterward, both my parents and my brothers lectured my twin and me about our muteness. And once again, while I felt, in a sense, betrayed that they had “sided” with the shop owner, I stayed silent. When I look back on this occasion, I don’t regret staying silent when the shop owner made such a remark—I had no relation to this person, and in the moment saying something may have caused a bigger scene than what actually unfolded. But what I do regret is not conveying my indignation to my family, because they would have at least seen the reason for my action rather than perhaps forming an assumption that my twin and I just happened to be disrespectful and immature.
CONTEXT: Of course, how to best communicate with another person depends heavily on who they are and the situation at hand; there is no “one size fits all” methodology. Sometimes we don certain roles based on the environment, and though these roles conflict with how we truly feel, the role is the most conducive to a given outcome. Likewise, we can’t overgeneralize a behavior-and-response, but through risk-taking and experimenting with expressing ourselves, we can find what works in some situations and what doesn’t.
MY RECOMMENDATION: The “Interpersonal Dynamics Reader” presents its information in an honest and sincere manner. Though at times I found myself confused in reading, the relatable and realistic examples helped clarify many concepts. I would recommend the reader to everyone who currently wants to better their relationships—kids, parents, or friends. The learnings cannot be understated, and what is presented in this article only scratches the surface. The book is chock-full of information and insights that I need time to contemplate and deliberate, and perhaps read again. While my comprehension is still wanting, I hope that I can apply the advice and learnings I currently understand to my connections, whether it be with family, friends, peers, or others, and bring about better interpersonal dynamics in my own life.