Years ago, while I was in graduate school, one of my favorite professors made a simple statement that stuck with me. This phrase forever altered the way that I communicate, and I believe that it has the power to positively impact the way you connect with others as well. The statement goes like this:
“All behavior is communication.”
The idea is that every action a person takes, both positive and negative, is being done for a reason and communicates something important about that person. By choosing to listen to the behaviors of those around us, we are able to gain a deeper level of understanding, and this leads to more meaningful conversations.
A Personal Journey of Judging Less and Understanding More
Let me illustrate with a story of the time that I came to understand the power behind these four words. I vividly remember the night these words unexpectedly altered my world view. I was out on a date and had just exited the movie theater with the gorgeous woman who would soon become my wife. The two of us strolled, hand-in-hand through the theater mall. During our walk, we passed a group of teenagers. Some were dressed in all black, others had brightly colored hair, and one young man had heavy padlocks pierced though both of his ears. If I’m going to be honest, you need to know that my old way of thinking was somewhat harsh. A few weeks prior to this I would have passed this group of teens (especially the young man wearing the padlocks) and thought to myself, What’s wrong with him? That person must be pretty messed up to do that to themselves.
But, on this particular night, things were different. In fact, my initial thoughts were so different that they even surprised me. When I passed by the young man with the padlock-pierced ears I thought to myself, How interesting, I wonder what his story is, and I wonder what he is trying to communicate with those padlocks? This is the precise moment that I realized that my way of viewing the world had changed. Instead of rushing to judgment, I acknowledged that there was a deeper meaning behind what I was observing, and as a result, my rush to judgment had been replaced with curiosity. As we continued to walk, I pondered all of the reasons someone might make the decision to hang padlocks from their ears. I thought to myself:
- Perhaps this man is lonely, feels invisible, and un-noticed. Maybe this is his way of attracting attention in a world that he believes has overlooked his existence.
- Maybe this young man feels weak and the padlocks are his way of communicating “I’m tough and can take the pain.”
- Or perhaps they communicate a history of trauma. Could the inner pain of this man been so great that this young man intentionally inflicted outward pain on his body as a way of masking the hurt going on inside?
The padlocks might have been communicating any one of these things, or something entirely different. It’s likely that I’ll never know for sure. However, on this particular night, there were three things that I did know. First, I understood that these padlocks were not an accident. Second, I knew that they were a strong communication of something this young man was experiencing inside, and third, I knew that the way I perceived the world had been altered for the better. When behavior is viewed as communication, at least three things happen inside of us.
1. When we view behavior as communication, we become more curious and less judgmental.
Jumping to conclusions is characteristic of poor communication and frequently leads to inaccurate assumptions. When behavior is viewed as communication, the things that people do become a part of the conversation. When I understood that the man with the locks in his ears was providing me with a small glimpse into his inner world, I wanted to know more. The rush to judgment had passed and curiosity remained.
2. When we view behaviors as communication, the actions of others are taken less personally.
A person who cuts you off on the free way, a man who loses his temper with a public outburst of anger, and a woman who bursts into tears as she rushes out of the room; these are all examples of people who are communicating with their behaviors. There was a time when I would take actions like these personally. If someone was angry I might worry and wonder, Did I do something offensive? I now understand that when an emotional outburst is greater than the situation calls for, the outbursts are likely not about me at all. Instead, it’s a way of communicating that something deeper is going on inside of the other person. The people in the above examples might be communicating that they are:
- Feeling overwhelmed and stressed out,
- Late for work, and
- Having a really bad week.
There are literally thousands of possibilities. Nevertheless, there is one thing that we can know for certain:
When a person’s actions are magnified far beyond what the situation calls for, it says a lot more about what is going on inside of the other person than it does about us.
Extreme behaviors communicate that there is more to the story than meets the eye. With a little curiosity, we can dig deeper and gain a more intimate understanding of the other person. Understanding that all behaviors are a form of communication has allowed me to take the emotional outbursts of others less personally and become less anxious when they occur.
3. Knowing that behavior is communication, leads to a deeper level of understanding.
Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “What you’re doing speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you are saying.”. It’s true; actions really do speak louder than words. When a person says one thing, but does another, it is a signal that something more is going on. Knowing this allows us to ask good questions and dig deep in our conversations.
This can be an especially valuable tool for parents. When a child:
- Says they are fine with a frown on their face
- Throws a tantrum out of the blue
- Says that he or she enjoys going to school and then ditches class, or
- Consistently forgets to do something he says he is going to do.
These actions are all signals that there is more to the story than initially meets the eye. It is our job as parents to draw out the rest of the story with curiosity and active listening.
While all of this may sound complex, it really does begin to come quite natural once you’ve given it a try. This week I would encourage you to try a relational experiment. First, remind yourself that all behavior is communication and then seek to understand what others are communicating through their actions. Next, revisit this post and leave a comment on ways that listening to the actions of others fostered a deeper level of understanding or helped you to view those around you in a different light. I can’t wait to read your comments!