Alain de Botton on What Makes a Good Communicator and the Difficult Art of Listening in Intimate Relationships
By Maria Popova
“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her masterful meditation on the magic of real human conversation. “They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But in moments of pain or anger, when words spring from the rawest recesses of the heart, they can amplify our deepest insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities, in turn fueling a maelstrom of mutual misunderstanding.
How to avoid that is what Alain de Botton explores in a portion of The Course of Love (public library) — the immeasurably insightful psychological novel that gave us De Botton on vulnerability and the paradox of why we sulk.
De Botton writes:
What makes people good communicators is, in essence, an ability not to be fazed by the more problematic or offbeat aspects of their own characters. They can contemplate their anger, their sexuality, and their unpopular, awkward, or unfashionable opinions without losing confidence or collapsing into self-disgust. They can speak clearly because they have managed to develop a priceless sense of their own acceptability. They like themselves well enough to believe that they are worthy of, and can win, the goodwill of others if only they have the wherewithal to present themselves with the right degree of patience and imagination.
Fertile communication, in other words, is largely a matter of what Anna Deavere Smith called refusing to “use language as a mask” — refusing to hide from both the other person and from oneself in the act of communication. This skill is no different from the vast majority of our psychoemotional arsenal, which is shaped by our early caretakers, and is contingent upon the degree to which our parents have managed to unconditionally accept us and nurture our inner wholeness. De Botton writes:
As children, these good communicators must have been blessed with caregivers who knew how to love their charges without demanding that every last thing about them be agreeable and perfect. Such parents would have been able to live with the idea that their offspring might sometimes — for a while, at least — be odd, violent, angry, mean, peculiar, or sad, and yet still deserve a place within the circle of familial love. The parents would thus have created an invaluable wellspring of courage from which those children would eventually be able to draw to sustain the confessions and direct conversations of adult life.
Echoing Hemingway’s assertion that “most people never listen,” De Botton adds:
Good listeners are no less rare or important than good communicators. Here, too, an unusual degree of confidence is the key — a capacity not to be thrown off course by, or buckle under the weight of, information that may deeply challenge certain settled assumptions. Good listeners are unfussy about the chaos which others may for a time create in their minds; they’ve been there before and know that everything can eventually be set back in its place.
Paradoxically, De Botton argues, being frequently unsettled by communication with our loved ones is precisely what attests to the fullness and strength of those bonds, and to their orientation toward mutual growth:
It is precisely when we hear little from our partner which frightens, shocks, or sickens us that we should begin to be concerned, for this may be the surest sign that we are being gently lied to or shielded from the other’s imagination, whether out of kindness or from a touching fear of losing our love. It may mean that we have, despite ourselves, shut our ears to information that fails to conform to our hopes — hopes which will thereby be endangered all the more.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly fantastic The Course of Love with Rebecca Solnit on how our modern noncommunication is changing our experience of communion, then revisit De Botton on the seven psychological functions of art and what philosophy is for, and treat yourself to his wildly insightful Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:
My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways — and that’s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings.
Published August 15, 2016