Do you ever want to shake someone and say, “Why won’t you talk to me?” Do you have to repeat yourself? Have you ever wished that your partner, family member, or friend would just pay more attention? This might be one of those times when it’s appropriate to say, “It’s not you. It’s me.” Hear me out.
The Meaning of the Communication is the Response That You Get
Let’s start with the presupposition that the meaning of the communication is the response that you get. So, if you offer a thought or question and you get no response, a “what?” or something other than complete engagement, the problem is that your partner isn’t ready to have that conversation with you. If you want to be effective, you simply wait until you are in rapport to move forward.
In Rapport/Out of Rapport
“In rapport” means that you are connected. “Out of rapport” means you are not connected. If I am sitting on the couch watching tv or working at my desk and you start talking at me, it would be ludicrous to assume that I would hear you or respond because we are not in rapport. I’m not even looking at you!
The problem isn’t that I am not listening, responding to you, or disrespecting you. The problem is that you barged into my mental space without invitation and demanded my attention. You wouldn’t walk into someone’s home uninvited would you? If you want to be in rapport, you knock, wait to be invited in, and then begin speaking.
Rapport Changes Moment to Moment
Now let’s say that we are talking about going to play tennis. Everything is going along fine. It’s animated and happy, then you start talking about your feelings about politics. Suddenly I become quiet and just listen. When you ask me what I think about the latest news event, I am vague and noncommittal. What just happened?
What happened is that we lost rapport. If you aren’t tuned into that, you could keep talking and leave with a disconnected, unsatisfying feeling. Over time this leads to us feeling not so close without knowing why. This happens all the time. The way to avoid it is to pay attention to the ebb and flow of rapport.
Red Light/Green Light
Have you ever played that children’s game Red Light/Green Light? One child is ‘it.” The rest try to grab her. The rules of the game are that the one who is It turns her back to the rest. When she calls “green light” they advance towards her. When she calls “red light” they have to freeze. Meanwhile she turns around trying to catch them moving. If she does, they are out. If she doesn’t they continue to advance until she’s caught.
Staying in rapport is a bit like that game. When we approach, one or both are at a red light state. We may be speaking, but if so, it’s superficial conversation like exchanging “Good morning.” This is safe conversation that is usually not going to upset anyone or ask anything of anyone.
“How are you?” may be an invitation to a green light. If you get a “Fine, and you?” in return, that’s still a red light. It’s still superficial. This means, “I’ll be polite, but don’t probe.” If you get something like, “Man, I can’t believe the morning I’ve had, and it’s only 9:30!” This person is at least at a yellow if not green. This means, “Talk to me about more than pleasantries. I am willing to share.”
If you want to have mutually satisfying conversation, you’ve got to obey the street sign. When both people respect each others’ level of engagement, communication is generally clear and connected.
Hitting a Red Light
Everyone is different. We all have different communication styles. We have different levels of openness. So, despite being sensitive to being in rapport, you may still hit red lights more often than you’d like. What do you do then?
The first thing is to back off. You don’t want to pursue a line of conversation when it’s clear that the other person isn’t engaged. Backing off could mean that you stop talking, change the subject, tactfully leave the room, or something like that.
It’s important to keep in mind that it doesn’t matter what you think about why you’re getting a red light. If you think, “I am more important than that video game and you will give me your attention now,” you may get their attention, but you won’t have rapport. You’ll likely have an argument because you’re creating a power struggle. Demanding rapport doesn’t really work.
If it’s a topic that has to be discussed, you could deal with the underlying emotional need that is creating the red light. For example, let’s say I am want to discuss borrowing your bike, and every time I bring up the subject, there is a disconnect. I could ask myself, “What might make this easier to talk about? Or what could be creating this block?” My next move would either to be to do something that I think would remove the block or ask about the block. When done effectively, this usually leads to a green light.
Why It’s Important
This is really important stuff because without being in rapport, we go through life talking at people. Loneliness is rampant. Being in rapport creates connection. It deepens affection. It facilitates problem solving and leads to greater feelings of happiness. It’s the difference between being tuned into life and tuned out. The other big benefit is that it keeps you from wasting time with people who aren’t interested in connecting with you. You won’t have to ask if you’re being friend zoned or dealing with someone with intimacy issues. You will know.
Keep in mind that people are entitled to their boundaries. They don’t owe you their attention. It’s a gift. When you approach it in this way, conversation usually gets better because people can feel your intentions. If you are honoring them, they generally want to reciprocate. So it works out as a win/win. If you wonder, “Why won’t you talk to me?” try these strategies and let me know how it goes.