A few years ago I wrote a series of posts titled “The Internet is Destroying My Brain”. Lately I have been thinking about some of the themes I discussed in that series as it relates to our current cultural climate and how we are now relating to one another both on a small scale and on a global scale. While you can go back and read the original posts (1, 2, 3, 4), one of the main things I tried to convey is that if we truly want to counteract the very real ways our brains are being shaped and reformed by the Internet, we need to take determined steps to cultivate alternative ways of interacting with people.
In the cultural climate that exists today – thanks in large part to our over-reliance on social media and the need for immediate information – we seem to have become incapable of having real conversations in which we seek to discover what other people actually think and what motivates them. Instead we either engage in constant exchanges where we talk past each other in an effort to be right (or at least have the last word) or we remove ourselves from relationships in order to avoid conflict and, as a by-product, create echo-chambers of like-mindedness where we never honestly and thoroughly listen to an opinion that contradicts our quickly-developed beliefs about the latest topic put in front of our hungry eyes.
Neither of these is a recipe for building a healthy relationship.
Constantly arguing with another person makes both people involved want to escape and limit their interactions with one another. While not as overtly hostile, removing oneself in order to “fake” peace is in many ways worse than open conflict. It often means a part of the person “faking it” has died. They no longer feel they can have an honest conversation with this person and would rather not bother even trying.
Relationships are not only hurt by aggressive conversations, they can be even more impacted by silence. At least conflict shows a passion – apathy shows the opposite.
To get a list of some ideas of how to counteract our digital culture’s impact on our brains (that I believe is still valid today), read the links above. What I want to focus on today are a few foundational relationship skills that seem to be deteriorating in both our interpersonal relationships and our global conversations. Some we can do whether or not they are reciprocated, while others require both parties commit to working on the relationship (although if they aren’t reciprocated, it probably means the relationship isn’t long for this world).
Really listen! This is one of the hardest thing to do these days. Listening doesn’t simply mean hearing what the other person is saying, it means probing in order to figure out what someone is actually trying to say. It means not simply hearing just enough to respond; it means keeping silent long enough to discover why a person is saying what they are saying (“One who spares words is knowledgeable; one who is cool in spirit has understanding. Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.”). People so often dance around what they actually want to say for any number of reasons, so in order to draw this out, silence and asking open questions (that are not loaded or leading in a certain direction) are key to actually hearing what a person wants to say.
This requires discipline. It requires time. It requires patience. Lots of patience. It is slow work in a fast-food world.
But listening is foundational to developing relationships.
2. The Disciplines of Selflessness & Empathy
Let’s just call a spade a spade – we’re all selfish. We are very good at quickly determining the benefits and threats to us in almost any conversation. (How does the teacher’s work-to-rule impact me? – or – How do teacher’s contract negotiations impact me?). We are not very good at all at setting aside how things impact us and instead trying to understand their impact on other people (How does work-to-rule impact the parents of child x who are no longer getting the supports they need? – or – How are working conditions affecting teacher x?).
While I could go down a path here to talk about how, as a Christian, the very centre of my faith is the absolute greatest act of selflessness. This is true and very much forms how I believe, but selflessness is essential in order to have any true relationship with another living person. Love requires that you suspend – at least temporarily – desires for self-preservation and self-interest and instead focus on the flourishing of another person. It can be as simple as putting aside a deadline in order to listen to a friend explain how hard a week they are having or it can be as big as putting yourself in harm’s way in order to protect a child. No matter what form it takes, love requires that you think about someone else above yourself.
This leads naturally to a second discipline; feeling empathy for another person. This is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. The time you have selflessly taken to listen and try to understand where a person is coming from should lead you to understand them better and will hopefully help you feel how others are being affected by things you may not have previously understood.
We all share basic emotions and motivations and when we listen to understand, we begin to recognize how these can cause others to feel the way they do about whatever is causing conflict.
Relationships are built upon trust. Love and trust walk hand-in-hand.
Trust can only exist when both sides in a relationship are committed to building a trusting environment where the relationship can flourish. Trust can only be built by listening, loving selflessly, and empathizing with one another.
Trust means developing a shared space where each person can communicate honestly with one another and know that the relationship is safe – it will not implode because you reveal a part of yourself you have long kept hidden. It means knowing that another person will not just agree with you to “keep the peace”, but will speak honestly and call you on the ways you may be out of line, but in a way that is not motivated by self-interest, etc … (see above).
Without trust, a fake facade is all we can give to one another. This may all you want from many acquaintances, but is a poor substitute for a real friend. Real friendships are risky and can hurt, but trust allows us to see that the pain is temporary while the relationship will last.
Trust takes a long time to build and is very easy to lose.
4. Be Open to Change
This may seem self-explanatory – and it is – but too often we are not open to change. And people can feel whether or not you are open to change before a conversation even starts. Think about any number of conversations you have had where you enter into a conversation where you know right away that each of you is simply listening in order to respond rather than listening to actually listen. It seems to me that this defines a large number of conversations people have today.
But change is essential for growth.
People change. Relationships change as a result. In order to keep a relationship healthy, each person must change to reflect the changes in the other. It is the only way we can move together on the path of life.
If we are not open to change, we are not open to having relationships with others.
These are just a few things I have been thinking about and I am sure there are thousands of other things to consider. I believe these are both foundational and at the heart of the gospel call of God’s kingdom as well — funny how that works.