Why is it SO difficult to communicate?  A starting point is a wide-spread lie we tell others — and ourselves.

A misleading exchange, a billion times a day: “Hey, how’s it going?”  “Great, thanks.  You?”  “I’m fine.  C ya…” — has communication occurred, or been blocked? hows-it-going In this barrage of “checking in,” there’s no real exchange of information, but there’s a mutual deception.  In asking the question, we pretend that we’ve actually seen and heard the other.  In answering, we’ve followed convention but hidden our experience.  Why? Safety.  It’s “normal” which means it’s comfortable. Speed.  It’s fast, which means we don’t need to get caught up. Script.  We all know we’re “supposed to” stay on the surface, so we do.  

No Blood, No Foul?

So what?  We’re following a social convention — and isn’t it better than simply ignoring the other person?  The risk of this surface non-communication is the illusion of inquiry.  If we walk out from this “discussion” pretending we’ve actually understood, we block the real data that’s available. I suspect that as this surface transaction has become the cultural norm, simultaneously we’ve found it increasingly difficult to have more substantive dialogue.  “Norms,” by definition, are what’s comfortable.  What’s proper.  What’s prudent.  So we’ve become used to a shallow exchange, and this leads us to miss invaluable data.  As George Bernard Shaw famously said,

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Don’t fall in that trap.  Remember this “secret:”

There is always more to the story.


How To Ask About Feelings

Nearly 20 years ago, I was teaching about the Vietnam war, and talked one of the veterans who counseled other vets.  I explained that my dad was a veteran, but he’d never told me about his experience in the war.  The counselor asked, “When are you asking him?  On the way to the airport?  In a busy restaurant?  You just can’t give a real answer to that question unless you’re sitting by a lake with a case of beer and a whole weekend ahead of you.” The more complex and challenging a topic, the more time and space will be needed for a real answer.  If I’m going to be vulnerable enough to reveal something ugly, scary, painful, serious — or even just complicated — I’m not going to do it in a casual, hurried, public setting.  I’m not going to talk if I can tell you don’t have time.  And, if you want me to be honest about my experience, let’s go real.  It’s back to those 3 Ss: Safety:  Start by building a trusting relationship; ask questions that are appropriate to the level of trust… or trust+1 (slightly more serious/challenging than yesterday’s question).  Make sure there’s sufficient privacy and time for the seriousness of the question.  Pull someone aside, go for a walk, sit side-by-side, make a space. Speed:  More serious conversations take longer.  Find five minutes for a five-minute-level check-in.  Make an hour for a much more serious one.  If you’re in a rush, people feel that, and they’ll conform to the “I’m in a rush” signal you’re sending (or, if they don’t they might need to learn that norm…) Script:  While “surface” is the starting norm, the way you respond tells the other person what to expect next.  If they perceive that you’re following a script, you send a message that this isn’t real.  If you invalidate their ideas and feelings at the outset, they “know” not to be honest.  If you push or pull, they “know” this isn’t a real dialogue.  On the other hand, if you take turns, sharing, asking, listening, recognizing, reflecting… as the dialogue flows back and forth, it also flows beyond the surface.   outside-inside

Communication Exercise

In any moment, consider there’s the “outside story,” or what we’re comfortable sharing… and the “inside story,” what we’re really thinking and feeling.  Here is one of Six Seconds’ training exercises that you can use to explore this for yourself — with a partner — or even in a group.  All you need is a paper and something to write with, but it’s more fun with colored pencils or pens:

  1. Think of a situation, perhaps a recent conversation that was somewhat complex.  Or maybe a party you attended, or a meeting, or even just walking into school or the office.
  2. On one half of your paper, make a sketch or symbol of what you were showing on the outside.  On the other half, represent what you were feeling on the inside.
  3. Discuss.

Step 3 is “where the magic happens,” of course… and the skill of your facilitator or partner makes this either interesting or amazing.  Depending on the situation, questions could include:

Are the two sides different?

What are some differences?

Why do you suppose that is?

What would happen if you were to show more of the inside (if you didn’t)?  What are the costs and benefits of doing that?

How would it affect you — and others — and your relationships?

This can go quite a bit further — about self-awareness, about patterns, about choices and consequences, and even about purpose.  What kind of relationships do you want to build?  Why does that matter?  What choices will you need to make for that to happen?

  What happened when you did the exercise?  Please share in the comments!  

The Point:  Look Deeper

If you want to understand others, you need to get beneath the surface.  If you fool yourself into believing the surface story, you’re missing invaluable data.    

About the author - Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.

View more posts from Joshua Freedman

Comments for this article (33)

  • Bob Farrell says:

    Guts….you’ve got “guts” Joshua to share this in public print; I LOVED IT and found it refreshing and reassuring that I am not alone in my approach to this stagnant interchange between human beings.

    I find myself often asking the waiter, waitress, grocery store clerk or whomever is helping me, “hey, how are you doing” or simply “how are you”? Yes, the standard response has been identified: “fine”, “good”, “okay”. I usually don’t stop there (depending on the person and situation). I’ll ask; “No really, how are you doing because we all have crappy days”. At least 75% of the time the response will be “well, you know what, I am having a kind of bad day…week…life…”. It’s almost like they (we), as humans, are thirsty for a more intimate interaction, albeit briefly. I had a young lady at the grocery checkout literally start crying as I listened to her circumstances…it touched me deeply and I was able to get her to allow me to help financially somewhat.

    My point is you are absolutely correct. We’ve become too sterile in our daily “human” interactions. Texting, Facebook, Twitter, on and on….so “clean and nice” to communicate this week. And the evolution of where that missing actions of heart to heart, mouth to ear, hand to hand is leading our society is frankly, somewhat disturbing.

    Keep banging the drum…I’m marching to its beat!

    Bob F.

    • Ellen Cohen says:

      Last week at whole foods, the checkout woman asked how I’m doing. i responded and asked how she is doing. She didn’t respond, so I said – I didn’t hear your answer. How are you doing? She went on to tell me that everyone says that but nobody actually waits for the answer. My response – I’m different than everybody. She really appreciated the interest I think.

      • Joshua Freedman says:

        Hi Ellen, you & Bob (comment below) are like the grocery-story-EQ-squad… a moment of human connection in every checkout… :)

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Thank you Bob – what I take from your comment is that we all have this incredible capacity to make a difference… and in so doing, we also enrich our own lives. It turns out to be surprisingly easy… but it takes an effort to get out of the ruts of our individual and cultural patterns.

      • Autumn Frenchman says:

        Josh, Ellen & Bob! Believing that the “spark of change” begins with a grocery-store-EQ-squad IS the trigger for others around us to try this and become comfortable doing it, as this simple gift to another, as they serve us, brings about our coming to feel gratitude, on a different level. As one gets comfortable repeating the grocery store EQ, one may feel compelled to offer this same action in restaurants, gas stations, toll booths, garbage pick-up, landscapers, custodians, receptionists (in person and by phone), our bosses, our colleagues, our spouses, and our own children. As a member of the grocery-store-EQ-squad; it’s amazing how surprised the cashiers, grocery baggers, deli employees, stocking workers, meat experts and seafood specialists look, once the understanding of a “How are you, today?” is not said and left, but the person is waiting for a response. :) Yes, to hear and see the multiple confused feelings are many times, sad. It’s a reminder that we take people, who serve others in their respective jobs, the same, as all jobs. Jobs serve, not only ourselves but others. EQ allows us to render ourselves and others as equals, understanding that service, paid or not, in every job, is to be commended and thanked, “personally”.

        Allowing a person time to answer, and then even probing, by questioning how it must be a challenge to say “I’m fine” all day, without ever acknowledging not feeling well, feeling rushed, tired, hungry, excited, etc., and we could never do that, on top of dealing with others’ expectations and literally, their job. “Thanks for serving us today! We appreciate it! We hope your mom gets better or you do well on your mid-term, or Happy Birthday!”

        When we are mindful to utilize EQ, because we deeply understand what it feels like for others to care about us and how it creates compassion and gratitude in a world filled with self, more, and what’s next; EQ is passed on. Let’s say figuratively, by osmosis of feelings, my daughters and our family have made quite a few relationships in the grocery store. When we go in, and one of us doesn’t have eye-contact or asks, “How are you feeling today?”, the EQ squad has now taken new members: the employees, who ask us, “You’re not yourself today, is there something I can say or do for you?” :) The power of EQ working on its own is the gift. xoxo

  • OPTYVA says:

    I absolutely love this exercise. This would be a great tool or ap for a community network, not that the on-line modes will ever, ever replace the human touch and in-person engagement for healing & meaningful connection. I just felt a deepening of conscious awareness and an invocation of another level of my being just by reading it!
    Nevertheless, I love how the idea scales and has possibilities for deepening communication, openness, awareness and even consequential thinking. Fabulous.

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Thank you Amy – I agree that blending the tech and touch can become a multiplier – needed, and hard to do! :)

  • Good thoughts. A member of our family routinely gives an off the cuff answer. When questioned about why her answer was very telling: ‘If people really want to know, they’ll ask me another question, otherwise they’re just being polite’. In Australia it’s part of the ‘hello’ with people that we tack on ‘how are you?’ We don’t really listen. As an experiment, I once went through a whole day answering with ‘I’m terrible thanks’ with a smile on my face. Not one person noticed…

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Jenni – I wonder if you reversed the experiment, “fabulous” with a sad frown… the content of emotional messages is so much about face & tone… which we also learn to fake, of course, because we want to “make nice.”

  • Derek G. Adams says:

    When I ask someone how they are I try to notice their body language and facial expression. These give my an important clue to the inner feelings behind their response and if time allows follow up with “Thats good” or “You don’t seem very sure. Is something bothering you? Maybe we can chat later” Works well with friends, not quite so well with acquaintances but if I am in hurry to get somewhere I fall into the same trap of miscommunication. Perhaps we also need better time management.

  • Thanks Josh for another insightful article. We certainly get caught up with the scripts of our Routine relationship management messages. I like the 3S’s – Safety, Speed, Script. Somehow I feel that we are uncomfortable sharing how we really are ( feel ) in quick casual conversation – it takes a slower moment to dig deeper into ourselves and work out an explanation or reply to a greeting, that has this deeper truth. On the other hand too, the “greeter” may not want or be ready for this “deeper truth” we may want to share. So the alternative for the Greeter would be – Ask only if you want to Receive ( the deeper truth ) or Don’t Ask at All ! Wow !! For the Person being Greeted – it could be ” Answer with the Deeper ( Darker ? ) Truth else Don’t Answer at All !!” Obviously we would want to take the ” Polite & Fake” route for casual conversations. The concern is that we do this for the slower deeper moments too. Or we are so preoccupied with what we define as the major chunks of our life that we have no time for these deeper slower conversations.

  • Correna says:

    I have a twist on this. I was told once that we are always supposed to answer that we are “good” or “great” with a huge smile on our face. Why? Because people will think better of you. You come across poorly if you are honest and tell someone you are having a bad day or your loved one is in the hospital. Heaven forbid you answer honestly. You musn’t make the other person uncomfortable.

    For me, when I ask someone how they are, I really mean it. I care. Instead of teaching us all not to answer honestly, we should be teaching the others not to ask if they really don’t care.

  • riya says:

    loved the article.People really hide their emotions by simply thinking about others reactions or responses.may be it is an indication of lack of trust and faith in a relation or we can say the emotional bond is weak…so people do not want to reveal the truth .Its very important to develop a strong emotional bond with your loved one so that they should feel free to share their inner sufferings rather than simply saying… yahh I ‘m fine…(i know you wont be able to help me…so no point in telling you..).We need to show our concern and convey it effectively.

  • Jim Lynch says:

    Thanks Josh…here the surface doesn’t even get scratched! The story does not get told, and the mystery will not get revealed! The situation is without resolve…in concert with the way many like, these days in the culture we live in.

  • Beautifully explained with exercise. So important for all speedy parents, teachers and even managers . At times they quickly move further and further and live in illusion that everything around them is going good. Let us STOP AND CHECK. with our own creativity. Let us reach out to them by some way. Thank you Josh for this intense write up.

  • irina825 says:

    Excellent and timely article, Josh. We were just discussing this topic at a workshop yesterday. Here in Mexico it´s not culturally acceptable to express what you really think and/or feel: if the service is slow or bad, people still would tell the provider not to worry about it or that it´s Ok instead of finding a polite way to express their opinions and emotions. Communication is fast and superficial, thus relationships are like this as well, and yet most people would tell that their problems at work or at home have their root in poor communication.

  • Excellent Joshua. We learn to pretend while our self yearns to bear . We interact superficially yet we all earnestly want to live and love deeply. Its a kin to ” we all wish to go to heaven yet none want to die”. You inspire me and reinforce my steady belief that to develop self and others we need to develop EI and competence.

  • Tauqir says:

    Thanks Josh for a wonderful article on something that deeply touches our life: I feel you spoke up my heart. We really need to be more ‘genuine’ in our communication and relationships. It seems Trust is the basic factor that’s missing. Since it needs time and sacrifice to develop that, we depend on ‘I’m fine’ type cliche responses to keep things going and to keep living with self-deception that ‘All is well’.
    BTW, the other day I was asking my daughter, “Do you really like things when you click ‘Likes’ on your Facebook?” It generated a thoughtful reelection on the issue.
    Thanks for adding Communication Exercise as a very good tool to develop insight for the ‘inside story’…fits best in the KCG model.

  • The challenge for all of us is to choose to care

  • seetha says:

    hi joshua, such a wonderful observation . it is all very superficial and lame to have such a hollow conversation. what does worry and anger me is when the so called EQ competent individuals too pay lip service instead of spending time to go deeper and probe the feelings of individuals concerned. it so reflects the unconcerned and hurried ‘catching up ‘ with friends and keeping them posted and updated while not really having an intimate and caring conversation

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Seetha – of course I agree with you, AND, I admit I do this too sometimes! In a world where it’s “normal” to stay on the surface, it’s more comfortable, it’s easier, and it’s faster… but it’s also empty.

  • Cool Observation, most of the time it happens in life when near dear ones ask about us. We just say we are good or fine. I say this because I don’t want my family and friends to get tense because of me. May be most of the people think the same way

  • Shabbir Latif says:

    This activity is a simple version of the “Mask” activity you have done in training. I could use this when there is less time.

  • not given says:

    how do I make this work in an elementary school setting where I have, maybe 25 minutes?

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Julia – it’s not about spending a long time, it’s about moving beyond the surface. It takes just a few seconds (six, perhaps?) to notice someone’s feeling and make a compassionate, clear connection. As I mention in this article, the problem is skimming: “Hey, how are you?” “Fine!” — and pretending that you have just engaged. We are all busy, and teachers have an impossible amount to juggle… and, our real job as educators can only be accomplished if we remember that we and they are people first.

  • I believe that it all depends on our communication skills and gestures. One can do anything by communicating with each other.

  • Joshua, this was a fantastic resource for an article of mine! And it’s very true- I am so grateful for this article. It voices many unspoken thoughts and makes a strong, concise and clear point about your point!

  • Sara Alhazmi says:

    I love this exercise!!! As a psychiatrist it’s my JOB to listen to what people say and don’t say. Most people want to share their emotions, their day, their feelings, but it’s also true that in todays life not many people stay long enough to hear our answers. Like most people, if asked “how are you?” my answer will be “fine”. most, if not, all the time. We are raised to believe that that is the proper way to answer, and that nobody wants to listen to our problems. Maybe by changing how I answer, I can get some of the people around me to change theirs.

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