It's time to pay attention

I have always been somewhat adept at reading facial expressions, at figuring out the silent messages people are sending with their body language, at seeing beyond their spoken words to what they really want to communicate.

I credit this in large part to my upbringing in a dysfunctional home. There truly are benefits to everything if you’re willing to think outside of the box. I grew up tiptoeing around on eggshells, trying not to rock the boat, trying to anticipate others’ moods so I could react accordingly.

We can speak the same verbal language and still not understand a word someone else is saying. Try sitting through the worship service of a religion other than your own. Or teenager humor. Or old people humor. Or profession-specific humor.

I once worked in the corporate offices of a large dental insurance company. It took me months to understand dental insurance humor. But once I did, it was funnier than a root canal at an underwriters’ convention. Bwahahaha! That one gets me every time…

What I’ve learned by paying attention to the subtleties of human behavior is that we all speak our own language. We all come from a world that only exists inside our own heads and hearts.

Accept that we are all different

It certainly would be simpler if everyone saw things exactly as we do. But that doesn’t work on several levels: 1) How boring! And 2) That’s simply not the way it is. Why whine about something we can’t change?

The first step in learning to speak someone else’s individual language is to accept that we are all different. We all see the world through the lens of our own experience, and no two lives are exactly alike. We all have our own successes, failures, opportunities, and disadvantages. And we all have our own way of applying meaning to these experiences.

Accepting differences is not equal to agreement

Accepting that everyone is different is not equal to agreement. The fact that we are different inevitably means that we are going to disagree, which often leads to anger. Our knee-jerk reaction to anger is defensiveness. We automatically feel threatened, which triggers our fight or flight response, which makes rational problem solving impossible.

When we attempt to speak another person’s individual language, we are putting ourselves into their shoes. We are experiencing empathy. We are considering a person’s set of unique experiences and seeing how these experiences have impacted who they are. If this is a person with whom we strongly disagree, empathy helps us remain calm. It helps avoid the fear of conflict, which avoids the fight or flight response, which allows us to remain rational.

Empathy and agreement are vastly different concepts. Empathy is trying to meet another person where they are at in their own personal journey through life. Agreement is a hearty pat on the back and a good laugh over mutually agreed upon values.

Redefining love does not require you to invite those with whom you strongly disagree to your house for dinner. It simply requires you to remain calm, listen, and try to understand where they are coming from.

In fact, learning to speak other people’s individual languages makes it easier to set boundaries. By understanding where someone else is at in their journey, we can see more clearly where we end and they begin. If where they are at is not compatible with your life’s path, you can choose to love them from a distance. The distinction is that where once you might have felt anger, bitterness, resentfulness, or even hatred, you can now love them in spite of your differences.

Everyone has a story

The only way we can understand where someone else is coming from is to listen to their story. In order to listen to their story we must ask questions, which automatically diffuses a situation. It’s difficult to remain angry with someone who appears interested in your life. If you give someone a chance, they will help you understand why they see things the way that they do.

Sometimes, highly toxic people will continue to behave aggressively or manipulatively no matter how hard you try to understand their point of view. In these cases, empathy requires more work. When direct communication fails, you must let their actions do the talking.

Look at what you know about the person’s history. If we are in close relationship, we probably know a thing or two about their life experiences. Chances are, it won’t take much effort to find a direct correlation between their experiences and their behavior. They may not be saying it directly, but their actions are speaking their language loud and clear.

An extreme example of this is someone who is openly racist. Nobody is born racist. Racism must be learned. Imagine what this person must have been through to bring him to this point. Imagine the messages he must have been sent as a child. Once, long ago, he’d been a helpless infant.

His experiences certainly don’t justify his behavior, but imagining what horror he must have seen and heard in his life may help you feel empathy. You may not want to have anything to do with this person, but by loving him from a distance you are not giving in to hate and bitterness, which just embroils you in the other person’s Shame Cycle.

Worth the effort

Language barriers are frustrating, but they aren’t insurmountable. Whether we are dealing with someone from another country, someone across the street with a yard full of political signs that grate on our nerves, or someone in our own family whom we simply cannot understand, we have a responsibility to try to see the world through their eyes.

In redefined love, we must try to speak each other’s language. We must attempt to understand even those with whom we struggle profoundly to relate. We must respect others’ way of expressing their own boundaries and beliefs. And we must love in spite of even the most painful disagreements.

Learning to speak other people’s language helps us to set boundaries and find peace in even the most challenging relationships.

If you feel at any point like you want to harm yourself or someone else, seek professional help immediately or dial 911. You are worth too much to the world to choose otherwise.

The author of Redefining Love is not a licensed mental healthcare professional. The information included on this site is for the specific purposes of learning to set boundaries and hold yourself and others accountable with love and grace. For mental health diagnosis questions or clinical mental health treatment or concerns, please reach out to a licensed mental healthcare professional.

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