As a young child I developed a tremendous fear of sharks. I saw Jaws at a young age and the idea of being attacked by one of these fearsome creatures consumed me. I would read stories about shark attacks, study shark biology and look at shark pictures. It was one of those fears that consumed my choices and behaviors. I remember skipping several trips to the beach with friends throughout my teenage years. I finally agreed to go to the coast my senior year of high school and ended up playing a game of football in about 1 foot of water at the beach. A stingray hit me with his barb on my ankle and I remember panicking. I had to go to the emergency room to remove the barb and to be treated for a mild case of shock.
Around the same time, my wife to be was dealing with other issues. At the age of 12 she lost her father. It was both sudden and unexpected. The grieving process, as you can imagine, was incredibly difficult and something that she internalized for a long time. She kept photos and notes and held fond memories of her father. One of her best memories included family trips to the coast and walks on the beach with her father, where they would share stories.
Fast forward several years, when my wife and I were in our courtship and honeymoon period. We had an amazing relationship and got along well. We were both still very young, finishing up our college degrees. We hardly fought; except for a single argument that seemed to come up at least once a month. Both of us would finish classes on Friday and when neither of us had to work on the weekends, we would talk about “getting away” and having a nice weekend. My wife would start by saying, “We have no plans; why don’t we drive down to the Coast for the weekend?” I would respond, “Yes, let’s get out of town. How about we go visit friends in Austin or head up to Dallas?” The conversation would escalate quickly into an argument. My wife would accuse me of never wanting to do what she wanted to do or not trying something new. I would respond by saying that she never listened to me or that she was being selfish in only wanting to spend time doing “her activities”. Often times we would end up in a fight and not go anywhere for the weekend. Neither of us actually thought to share with the other person our thoughts and opinions about the beach and what the beach symbolized to us. It was eight years into our marriage before I completed a course on communication and came home to ask my wife, “What was it about the beach that made it so special to her?” That is when we exchanged stories about our beach experiences.
Many times, individuals process information differently, based upon their own learning styles, thought process, and communication concepts developed over a lifetime of modeling, experiences, culture, and other factors. We internalize our communication styles and consider them to be the norm. In other words, our understanding and meaning of the word “beach” is the same as everyone else. In order to assist with effective communication, we must first learn to set aside our opinions and concepts regarding words and phrases and be willing to ask questions and to listen to how others perceive words we use every day.