As with most of our abilities as humans, the power of speech is something we often take for granted. We live in a world where free speech is embraced, encouraged and even praised. Think of all they ways we interact with people every day; face to face, on the phone, via email, via text message and via social media. We’ve moved on from smoke signals and strapping notes to pigeons (if we did that now, those notes would probably end up outside Greggs).
We can talk about anything we want, to whomever we want to, whenever we want to.
So what stops us? Why don’t we express our thoughts? Why do we look at the floor and pretend we haven’t seen that familiar person across the road? Why don’t we send that text message?
What makes us lose the power of speech?
I’m pretty much just going to be writing about my general ponderings and observations in this topic. Verbal and non-verbal communication tells us masses about ourselves and others but it seems to be more complex that we realise.
Cat got your tongue?
Have you ever been round friends/family/colleagues and the stories, anecdotes and jokes flow off your tongue? You interact comfortably with those familiar people, ask them questions and answer theirs. You talk about an experience in great detail easily and naturally, throwing in jokes and daft comments here and there, enjoying the two way laughter.
You may not even hesitate to make an inappropriate remark with a dead pan expression because the people you are with “know your humour”. People are interested in what you say. They laugh at your jokes and respond to your banter. You’re sometimes centre of attention and these people are interested to hear your views. They ask to hear more and wait for you to expand. Its comfortable, familiar and the interaction is entertaining (here I am acting like I’m Live at the Apollo).
Someone may confide in you so you listen, effortlessly offer support and even give valuable advice. You know this person/these people and how they tick. You say what you think they need to hear or what they don’t necessarily want to hear but you know it will eventually help them and broaden their perspective on a situation.
In a work situation, when something doesn’t go to plan. You can stand up and say what you think went well and what could be improved on. You can challenge individuals and take confrontation on the chin.
What about those other people? The ones you don’t know as well; distant colleagues, friends of friends, complete strangers. You may be more inhibited when having a conversation and feel more reserved.
They moan and groan about something trivial but rather than giving an alternative perspective- your perspective, you agree and indulge them. You don’t advise them to think about things more positively but instead nod along and make agreeing noises.
There may be a gap in the conversation. Instead of either relaxing in their company during this short moment of quiet or happily starting a new topic of conversation, you shuffle in your seat, looking round the room desperately trying to think of an appropriate yet interesting thing to say or perhaps even crack a little gag. You mumble something about something very uninteresting nearby, comment on the weather (classic), nervously make some kind of dramatic exhaling noise or perhaps even wave to no one behind them (ok, I haven’t gone that far).
They make a light hearted comment and instead of your usual quick, sarcastic response you awkwardly laugh far too loud and the make some agreeable yet completely lame joke. You stand stiff as you wipe the sweat from your brow and look for the emergency exit, suddenly wishing you were dead.
Some people may be reading this with a confused expression and shaking their head completely unable to relate. I envy these people who can easily chat away confidently and attract stranger’s attention as soon as they enter their surrounding area.
I am that awkward being. I’m very confident around my peers and will get right in there with the ‘lols’ and ‘bants’. But stick me in a room full of unfamiliar people who I don’t know and I suddenly feel like I’ve been tasered. I’ll be the one who opens her mouth to chip in but someone else will be louder and faster so I’ll shut it again. Who knows why. I don’t know if there is some deep rooted cause from my childhood but lets not attempt to explore that.
I’ve reflected on this and compiled a list of risks and potential benefits for each potential action amongst an unfamiliar group or person…
I enter an existing group conversation confidently greeting them and introducing myself (if required).
Risks– I could interrupt at a crucial and perhaps emotional point of the conversation. Maybe when somebody just announces a death in the family, a job loss or that a pet has escaped. I approach as they say “I’ve never felt so pathetic and low in all my…”
“HI GUYS, my name is Liz. I have arrived and have come to join your convo and crack some very enthusiastic yet average jokes!”
The response… blank stares and perhaps some of that awkward exhaling.
Benefits– I could pull my shoulders back, push my chest up and stroll over confidently. I could then approach the group or person knowing that I’m an interesting person and can offer valuable and potentially inciteful additions to the conversation. I would be curious and ask questions, showing interest and I would make an effort to respond as myself.
About 2 years ago, I signed up for a course. As I drove in for the first day (after reading Paul McKenna’s book ‘I can Make You Confident’) I wondered what it was that made me nervous in these situations. What did I think would happen? What did I think people would think? Surely people would respond better to me if I was acting myself than if I was mumbling and holding back my thoughts and opinions in fear of saying something ‘wrong’. I would let my nerves create a reserved, almost introvert version of myself, which would ironically make me less appealing to approach. What was I scared of? I wasn’t inferior to these people and why would they think I was anyway?
So I went for it. I pictured myself acting like I would any other day and psyched myself up. I made sure I spoke slowly and clearly in order to avoid blabbering utter rubbish and I listened intently. I set up my body and posture openly (not in a creepy way) to display confidence and interest. It all flowed nicely from there. I acted like myself and so felt like myself!
I see that highly important person at work whom up until now, I have only ever seen their photo on an important person poster or name copied into emails. I go over and introduce myself...
Risks- I could fall over en route. Like one of those falls that lasts for ages as you manage to save yourself but then fall again and keep stumbling for about 10 feet until you finally crash to the floor. I could then slide into their legs causing them to inadvertently toss their coffee and cafeteria bought full English into the air and then of course, onto my head/face. We both hit the deck and lie next to each other injured and sad.
Ok there was no need for that scenario but it amused me.
Or I could introduce myself only to find that they have no interest in talking to me or interacting in any way. They’re running to a meeting or visiting another important person with lots of letters after their name. Why would they want to chat to this random nurse? I sense their disappointment, which sends my nervous brain into meltdown and before I know it, I’m commenting on the weather.
Benefits- After I change my route to ensure I casually walk past them, I smile, stop, make it clear I have acknowledged who they are, seem pleased about this and introduce myself. I tell them where I work, what I do, why I have stopped to speak to them and humbly yet subtly, make it clear how simply fantastic I am. Simple as that!
I am asked to give a short talk about a given topic, to approximately 300 people
Risks- I could fall over… no lets not get into that again.
All those people are staring at me waiting for me to say something inspiring and amazing. It is a terrifying thought. I walk up to the front, my whole body is shaking making me walk like someone who’s just survived the electric chair. I’d do the classic ‘picturing them in their underwear’ and quickly abandon the idea. The person who came up with that theory probably ended up in jail.
I would open my mouth to speak only for one of two things to happen; the first being nothing would come out. Mouth open, no noise. Vocal chords stunned into spasm. About to start a sentence and then my brain grinding everything to a halt, over and over again. Sheer panic causing quivering lips and wide eyes. I cannot find any words. Then I run off with spinning legs like a cartoon.
The second being absolute verbal diarrhoea. Have you ever spoken with far more words than required? Suddenly every other word is interrupted with ‘like’, ‘erm’, ‘so basically’, ‘kind of’ and nervous, weak coughs.
“So erm, basically I kind of like, am here to pretty much like, erm talk about erm…” SPIT IT OUT!
Then there’s the dilemma of your brain being too fast for your mouth. My thoughts would be speeding away leaving my pathetic, waggling tongue trying to keep up. I’m mentally on the next part of the story before I’ve even spoken about the first bit, resulting of chunks of sentences being missed out or replaced with “erm/like/kind of/god help me”. I talk for 10 minutes yet say nothing!
Benefits- I could strongly consider the fact that I have been asked to do this for a reason and that it actually is an honour. I could go up to the front of the room, after practicing obsessively at home, and calmly talk about a subject that I am passionate about. I could visualise a confident me, consciously take my time with those words and step out of my comfort zone. This would give me confidence and pride and let other people know that not only do I exist, but that I actually have something to contribute to this world.
This one happened about a month ago at a nursing conference and I can honestly say, due to being absolutely scared sh*tless, I still don’t know which of these scenarios happened.
But as Anthony Bennett (Miracle Man) who was the keynote speaker of that conference, said: if someone asks you to do something, you can say no and carry on with your day. Or you can say yes and something amazing might happen…
What a blanker!
Why do we blank people?
What makes us avoid someone’s gaze and look at something else? Anything else. Why do we reach for our phones and read that non-existent text message or sometimes even answer that fictional phone call (don’t pretend you haven’t done it)?
Why do we avoid asking questions that we want to know the answer to? And why do we ignore people without even realising.
What a bunch of blankers.
You’re walking down the street, corridor or other place full of human life and you see someone you know. You quickly look the other way or at a fixed spot and start walking in a slight diagonal line. Well done, you made yourself invisible. A bit like a kid does when they put their sticky little hands over their eyes and freeze.
But why? Here are some reasons that popped out of my
1. No one wants an awkward conversation
How well do you know this person? How many times have you spoken to each other before? Can the conversation flow easily so that you both aren’t standing in front of each other nervously smiling and silently sweating. Or perhaps exchanging pleasantries like:
“Hi, how are you?”
“Good thanks, how are you?”
“Yeah yeah I’m alright thanks, you ok?” (starting to sweat)
“Yeah I’m good, how’s things”
“Yeah can’t complain, what you been up to?” (pit patches forming)
“Nothing much, you?”
“Nah same old” (practically standing in sweat puddles)
“Well see you later then”
“Yeh ta-ra” (goes to dry off in the wind)
So I might be exaggerating here, as though everyone has some degree of social anxiety but sometimes it might be easier to just drift on by and maybe offer a wave. Maybe even mouth “alright” if you’re feeling particularly outgoing that day.
2. You’re in a right rush
You were cutting it fine stopping for that coffee or delaying leaving for another 5 minutes to look at Instagram stories, so you’d better pick up the pace.
You get a nice little power walk on, weaving in and out of people, becoming more frustrated at their slow pace. You barge through a gang of teens, kick a pigeon, leap frog over a short kid and whizz through the middle of a cute old couple who are steadying themselves with their timeless love. Dog eat dog and all that.
Then you see that person walking towards you smiling. Do you stop and say hello, risking being embarrassingly late or do you opt with practically sprinting past with your ‘I’m so late, what am I like’ expression?
Go for the latter, you can then possibly squeeze in a few more Insta stories.
You fancy them
Is that….? Yep its him!
Its him and I look like I’ve been dug up. I’m emitting the distinct scent of 99p body spray mixed with dry shampoo (didn’t have time to wash my hair due to adding a ‘morning coffee’ photo to my Insta story). Shall I speak to him anyway and see if he likes the natural, hobo look?? Obviously not, you total div. Suddenly you’re hiding in a wheelie bin with nothing but your own shame.
For the past 20 year, you’ve only seen them on Facebook
One of those classic ‘Facebook friends’. You like their posts, comment on their holiday pics and laugh react to their memes. You’ve written “looking great hun” and “love this place. Enjoy” more times than you can count.
But it would appear that this person isn’t actually 2D and is quickly approaching you. You may have to actually hear each others’ voices. What do they sound like? How can I express that I am thumbs upping what they’ve just said?
Nah get outta there. Where’s that wheelie bin?
You simply can’t be arsed
Lets face it, its most likely this one.
Its early in the morning, you’d rather be in bed, you haven’t had a coffee, you’re fantasising about some form of chocolate filled pastry, there’s a ladder in your tights and its raining. Keep on walking love.
I’m hoping people can relate to this general theme, otherwise I’m clearly just an anti-social, daft sod.
But surely a little interaction can perhaps brighten your day, maybe brighten theirs. Just a friendly smile could give you a reflection of one back giving you a little bit of internal warmth. Perhaps even hugging someone you haven’t seen in a while. I’m a fan of a good hug.
There’s something about smiling and wrapping yourself around another person that’s really quite lovely.
I’ve become increasingly aware of engaging in conversation and especially starting one, or rather avoiding it.
I have been asking myself lately why I don’t invest more time into conversation. Invest more time and effort into one to one conversation. I have somehow felt like my time is too precious to be taken up by talking to other people.
Now that really does make me a blanker.
But how do you feel when you ask someone a simple question only to get a reply of “well its a long story”, “hmm you may as well sit down for this” or “it all started in 2013 on a Tuesday… or was it Wednesday?… no it must have been a Tuesday because that’s the day I always go to yoga… or was it pilates… no yoga… hang on I’ll check my diary”.
These words make me quietly die inside.
I automatically get frustrated by an unnecessarily long version of a story. I want the finer details cut out if they don’t contribute to the plot. I have used body language to hurry the story along and perhaps even, in the end, put a stop to the conversation so that I can use the time for far more ‘important’ things.
A bit rich coming from someone waffling on in written form.
As a result I have become conscious of my own use of speech. I assume everyone else feels the same way and so I rush my point, leaving out chunks of information that are actually relevant. I give vague descriptions and end my part of the conversation quickly to allow their response, which I assume they are waiting to give. With some people, I try to say what I need to say before they inevitably interrupt me, as they would rather be doing the talking.
It doesn’t occur to me that they actually might want to hear more detail. When they stop and give me undivided attention, waiting for me to continue, I feel on edge. I had made the decision to stop talking but there is room and expectation for more and I don’t know what to do with this attention.
Why on earth have I acted this way? Why don’t I put aside a short amount of time (in the grand scheme of things) to give some attention to someone who is a part of my life? To someone who wants to speak to me and, at that moment in time, only me.
A nurse colleague of mine once casually told me that she was walking up the hospital corridor looking at people as they passed by.
She noticed and acknowledged their actions and the expressions on their faces. She wondered what was going on in their lives, what thoughts and feelings were behind those expressions, what they were dealing with.
This has stuck with me.
What a kind, selfless and emotionally intelligent person to have thoughts like this. She stopped thinking about in her own life, just for a short time, and actively took those moments to consider other people. To consider strangers.
I watched this lovely being go through her day occasionally asking people questions like “how’s your mom doing?”, “are your kids better?” and simply “how are you today?”. Her conversations lasted such a short time in comparison to the amount of time people spend going through these life events.
My Grampa (one of my favourite people in the world) had been intermittently unwell. She was stood next to me as I was frantically typing something nursey on the computer, trying to get it done before I was interrupted and said “are you ok Liz? How’s your Gramps?”.
Such simple questions but with such a big impact. Someone wanted to take the time to listen to me talk about something difficult, for no benefit of her own. For no other reason but to see if I was ok.
Why wasn’t I doing this? Or if I was, why wasn’t I fully engaging?
Because the conversation may take a while.
I should be taking that time to give someone my attention and consideration. Now I still have my moments in times of tension and pressure but I remember those words. So I started consciously asking friends, colleagues or family members how they are or something more specific. I watched their facial expressions change as they realised what has been asked and I looked at them openly.
I have made an effort to continue this. To watch their face and listen to their tone.
As the conversation flows, I can see them relax. I sit and listen curiously, taking in the words and trying to empathise and understand. It’s hard to put yourself in someone’s shoes when you don’t stop to listen.
It became clear that everyone has a different life and a different story to mine. They have felt the same way I have as well as in ways of which I could never imagine. They approach situations from a completely different direction to me. Neither of which are right or wrong. They just come with different results.
You can learn a lot when you look someone, ask them a question and then open your mind.
End of conversation.
We are all people with our own preferences, individual attributes and individual reactions to what comes along in life.
We all have different contributing, outside factors. Some have lots of or barely any money, have broken hearts, have 10 kids, have hidden depression, some are still grieving for the loved one they lost years ago. Some feel as though they have nothing and no one.
Sometimes we want to speak to others, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we even talk to ourselves (I live alone and have some rather inciteful conversations with myself, as well as a good old laugh and joke…too mental?).
But I think about past conversations I have had throughout my life. Some major and life altering and some short and flippant. There are certain words that were said, particular ways in which someone looked at me and questions asked that expanded my mind.
So I truly believe we can learn and broaden our general knowledge and perspectives, just from simply showing interest in our fellow human beings. What is a better use of time than that.