I'm a little bit of a Star Trek geek. I don't have a pair of Spock ears nor have I studied Klingon grammar, but I do enjoy the various renditions of Star Trek that have appeared over the years. I even have some favorite episodes, although I generally call them 'that episode where X happened', rather than the title of the episode. And given a choice, Star Trek the Next Generation is my favorite. Why in the world am I telling you all of this? Well, it just so happened that my all-time favorite episode was on last night and I was happy at the prospect of seeing it again. This, naturally, made me start thinking about what it was that I liked about it.
My favorite episode of Star Trek the Next Generation (STTNG) is called Darmock. In this episode, Captain Picard encounters a race of people who speak in metaphors, metaphors that make no sense at all to our heroes. Great frustration ensues on both sides. Then the other captain, Dathan, beams himself and Picard down to the nearest planet. There they must join together to conquer a beast that would very much like to kill them both. To make a long story short, the two captains begin to communicate through their joint struggle for survival. Dathan, in the end, dies in the effort. To me, it is not just a story about cooperation, but also about the importance of truly listening and trying to communicate.
Obviously, it's extreme to risk death in order to communicate, but the various steps that were shown could be quite valuable in more mundane settings. They started out simply acknowledging that they did not understand each other. This, of course, led to some very hard work in listening, asking questions and looking for areas of agreement. Perhaps the Star Trek universe has the advantage in that there are so many different cultures and languages that no one makes too many assumptions about what the other is trying to get across. We who share a common language, rightly or wrongly, expect that the other person will understand clearly what we mean. This is probably inevitable to a great extent, but the addition of clarifying questions would go a long way towards fully understanding. After all, we all bring different experiences and/or different cultures to every situation we are in. We can't always assume we are speaking the same language in every sense of the word. Our words may be the same, but our understanding of them can be quite different.
Another aspect of their communication style is the fact that they shared stories with each other. This required a type of listening that did not mandate an immediate response. In this way, the listener had no other job than to listen and to try to understand. Any response prior to the end of the story would have been inappropriate if not downright rude. In the episode, the only thing the 'listener' said was, "Tell me more." This 'help me understand you' approach shows respect for the speaker and a real desire to truly connect with them. If we were to include a bit more of this approach in communicating with those around us, I'm willing to bet that the incidences of hurt feelings and anger would be reduced. It would be a good experiment to try in any event.
There was also very little to distract them from their attempt to communicate, except of course for that pesky beast. But aside from the fighting, the rest of the time they had nothing more pressing or distracting pulling at them. I have little doubt that our hectic, busy lives interfere in our efforts to connect and truly communicate with others. While it is true that it would be impossible to spend the time and effort necessary for that level of communication with absolutely everyone, there are times when I believe it is absolutely mandatory to try, especially with those who matter to us most. I have been fortunate to know a few people who truly want to do that level of listening. They are so restful to be around, partly because you can trust that they are engaged in the process every bit as much as you are. There isn't quite as much pressure on the speaker to cast about for multiple ways of communicating the same point. There is trust that any miscommunication will be dealt with with clarifying questions rather than angry accusations.
There also was little on the agenda for those two characters beyond communicating and surviving. Neither one of them was scanning each word or phrase for something to disagree with or to use against the other one. So much of our supposed listening devolves into plotting out our responses. How could I possibly listen to you if I am trying to come up with a witty remark or looking for someway to puncture your ideas? In work situations, the quick response is expected and there is very little room for communication beyond facts and figures. And I think that this need for speed bleeds over into our personal relationships, where it really doesn't belong. I doubt that this is intentional on anyone's part, but it happens far too often for it to be good for us.
In the Star Trek episode, an opening was made for a connection with another race and Captain Picard personally was touched by his connection with Dathan and his efforts. In real life, I think we could do a lot worse than creating openings between people and connecting on an emotional level. And in real life, we could also deepen and strengthen bonds with those around us. We could do a lot worse.
Teacher Voices: Kate Bartlett - This is a continuation of my series of interviews with former students who are now teachers. The interview on this page features Kate Bartlett, a teacher ...
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