If you follow me on Instagram, you already know I spent last weekend at the Girl Ignite Africa Summit where I was a mentor with seven other amazing individuals. We all got along from the moment we met and spent so much time laughing together, you would have sworn we’ve known each other for years. This connection and positive energy gave us so much optimism, we decided at some point during the weekend to go river rafting.
Now if you know me personally, you already know that I have an irrational fear of being inside water, especially if my feet can’t touch the ground. You might also know that when I am unsure of something I am about to do, I get all the information I can about it, just to make sure I don’t fail. Yes, I took that whole “Be prepared” mantra from my High School Girls Scouts pretty seriously.
So, before I agreed to go river rafting, I already had all the information I needed. I’d never paddled in a bathtub, not to mention a boat, but I was ready to put everything I learned through observation to practice. Afterall, I learned many other things through observation – driving, cooking, playing volleyball…somewhere in my head, the rules of lawn tennis lay dormant and will be awoken very soon. I digress.
Four of us got into the raft – four ladies who were super-excited and who got along well the entire weekend. The guys by the shore told us “Get in, it’s easy” and so we got in. The raft was pushed into the water, and the task to move in a desired direction fell on our shoulders. We were alone and we had to paddle. And that was when we realized this was no easy task. Some of us believed we had to paddle backwards to move forward while others thought the opposite. Some of us paddled stronger than others, making the raft turn around in circles over and over again (I blame the river current partly for that one). And I believe some of us were so obsessed with making sure everything ran smoothly, that we could not help but speak loudly and tell everyone what to do.
But that was not the only problem we faced. As we waddled on the river, speaking at the top of our voices, trying to figure things out, those on the shore of the river kept yelling out instructions. “Paddle backwards!” “Count to three and paddle together!” “Move the raft forward!” “Turn around”…. The instructions we did not get before we left the shore were now being released in dozens of screams. Mixed with the cacophony of our own voices, we were soon stuck and frustrated, sitting on a raft in the middle of a river, rather unhappy with the fact that we could not hear each other or figure out how to move in the direction we desired.
And in the midst of all that, I had an epiphany that made me laugh.
Isn’t this how relationships work?
In the beginning, it is so great to connect with a person who just gets you, makes you laugh and thinks you are the brightest, most amazing person ever. And the observers of this chemistry will very often encourage both of you to get into the boat. “He is such a sweet young man, I have no doubt he will treat you with dignity, respect, and love.” “She is such a loving young girl. I have no doubt she will make you happy”. And excitedly, we get into the boat, believing that chemistry is all that is required to row the boat forward. That’s until we get the shock of our lives when we realize there’s that little factor called communication.
I guess you’re thinking “Oh please communication is easy”. Well, I used to think so too until I found myself sitting in that raft, trying to just paddle back to shore so I could get out and mourn our failure. And then it dawned on me… Communication is easy when you are not in a difficult, sticky, or in our case, a wet, lost situation. You cannot claim to be an excellent communicator if you have only been in rosy situations where you did not have to make an effort to communicate. You cannot claim to be an excellent communicator if you pay more attention to those screaming instructions from the shore than you do to the person you are in the boat with.
This is perhaps the real reason many relationships crash when they face difficulty. Sometimes, in the rocky phases of our relationships, we pay a lot of attention to what others have to say based on their own personal experiences. We trust the perceptions others have of our partners more than we trust our own perceptions. We trust the biased opinions others have of our situation rather than listen to the person we are in the boat with. We spend more time communicating with the outside world than we spend relating with the person in the ship. This applies not just to romantic relationships but also to our relationship with God but this is a post for another day). We tend to speak more to others about our situation and our partners than we speak to our partners. And maybe sometimes, we speak to our partners, but we do this so loudly, that we deafen them with our ‘megaphonorious’ (this is not a word) opinions.
Sometimes, our over-zealous optimism tends to ruin our relationships more than build them. Many of us go into relationships with pre-conceived notions of how they should work. We believe relationships have a universal framework they are based on, and we go in with the notion that the person we are with knows how the framework is structured. We don’t realize that while we may have a framework in mind, we must never forget that the person we are with is not a robot who responds to the buttons we push. That person is human with a different perception of relationships. And unless we let them be themselves, we will never move the ship of relation forward. Like we were going around in circles on that river, relationships where expectations are based on pre-conceived notions rather than an in-depth understanding of individual qualities, expectations, and perceptions, often end up going around in circles till one person gets tired of the ‘not-so-merry-go-round’ and decides to leave the boat.
But leaving is not the answer to communication and perception problems. I know we live in an age where people cut other people off the moment those people piss them off because they are on some “I don’t allow negativity in my space”. Honeypie, a person who disagrees with you without subjugating you or belittling your dreams is not negative. You are just bad at communicating. Rather than leave, learn the skill of effective communication.
That was another epiphany that hit me as I fought the desire to just get back to shore and leave the boat. I had no right to leave. The fact that my over-zealous optimism was not working, was not enough reason to quit. I had to take deep breaths and listen to what the others in the boat thought. I had to communicate what I knew in a different manner. I had to take what I could from the shore and ignore what was not necessary. Most importantly, I had to realize that it was not about me. It was about me AND the people in the boat with me. It was about their expectations, understanding their intentions and realizing that they had the same goal I did – rowing the boat forward.
We cannot row relationships on our own, no matter how efficient we are. We cannot let our over-zealous optimism and over-efficiency make others seem inadequate. We cannot let a little frustration push us into giving up. Sometimes, all we really need to do in those rocky times is to breathe, shut up, listen to what the other person has to say, and ensure that when we do share what we know, we share it in a manner that is helpful, constructive and encouraging.
With this in mind, we finally rowed the boat forward and it was great to have that victory and learn that lesson. Below is a picture of us as we arrived back at shore, happy, ‘unfrustrated’ (this again is not a word) and educated in what I now believe is a communication masterclass masked as a fun activity.
Have you done any activity that taught you lessons in communication? Please share.