When we think about communication, to the extent that we do, I do not believe we pay enough attention to why communication exists. It exists because someone has a message that they want to send to someone. Often when we think of communication we think about ourselves as the receiver of the communication and ponder to what extent we want or appreciate the communication or would want more from someone else. Sending a message takes effort, energy, attention, time, and these things require that someone have something that they want to say. Sometimes we get so inured to the fact that we are surrounded by efforts at communication all around us that we do not pay attention to the fact that their existence is a deliberate act that requires effort and motivation. And while this motivation is not always easy to understand, it must be at the basis of our efforts to interpret communication because there are always reasons why someone wants to send out a message.
It ought not to be a surprise that most of the efforts of communication that other people make are things that we consider to be unwelcome. We are, for example, inundated with communication that attempts, whether openly or covertly, to sell us on something, created by people who seek to profit from influencing our behaviors in their favor. Whether this information comes from companies trying to sell something to us, not-for profits trying to guilt us into sending them money, or governments and other authorities lying to us and sending us some sort of propaganda and misinformation, this communication has a purpose. Debtors have worse memories than creditors, it is well understood, because most debtors would rather forget that they owe debts that must be repaid and most creditors want to be repaid and so therefore have motivation in communicating this (often deeply unpleasant) fact. The effort that debt collectors spend, for example, in communicating the terms and need for repayment to deadbeat debtors, is evidence of that strong motivation in their communication strategies.
Besides the proliferation of unwelcome communication directed at us, the other obvious communication problem that we face as people is that we do not get the communication that we want from others. Yet while we may express that we want to receive communication from others and even try to nag and pressure them into communicating with us, most of us do not engage in the far more useful and beneficial act of addressing the motivations that someone would have to communicate with us. What is it that makes us want to talk with someone? What are we doing that sabotages the communication that we wish to have with others? What are we doing that makes it unpleasant for people to talk to us or listen to us? Examining and addressing these concerns is often far more profitable than trying to nag someone into sharing more information with us when they know that we want something from them that they are, for whatever reason, unwilling to give.
When someone says that “we need to talk,” the person saying that may feel a need to talk or get a sense of resolution to what is bothering them that is not shared by the person being ambushed for an unpleasant and unwelcome conversation. People who do not lay the groundwork for frequent and welcome conversation do not tend to receive the timely and frequent and informative communication that they wish for. They desire information, but only care for what they want to get from someone else, and do not care about the motivations and concerns of the person who is supposed to give, and so it is little surprise that such efforts are often self-defeating. If we do not care about someone else’s motivations and concerns, they have little reason to care about what we want to get from them. Whether they choose to be aggressive and hostile in their refusal to give us the communication we want or choose to be more quiet and subtle about their unwillingness to give us what we want, we can little expect people we do not respect or reward to serve our interests in knowing more about what they are thinking or feeling.
In this world we are surrounded by people who are dishonest to us but who expect the truth from us, selfish and demanding people who do not care about us but who want us desperately to care about them, and people who want things from us but who are unwilling to do the little things that make us more willing to do those things. All too often we are on both sides of this problem at different times with different people. Yet it is often the case as well that we fail to use the insights we gain from being on one side of the problem to better understand the way that other people tend to feel the same way that we do when the same dynamic exists in reverse. The opportunities to develop empathy and insight are all around us, and yet we are all far too self-absorbed far too much of the time to take these opportunities, and so we leave undone the work that would be necessary to set up the networks of respectful and candid communication that we claim to want but do not foster through our words and deeds.