When Words Fail: Hard Lessons That Come From Silence

It's helpful to recognize the communication patterns we've learned in our families

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by Kate Delany |

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Recently, I found myself unintentionally listening in on a phone conversation between two family members. They were talking about a sudden death, an emotional subject. But the tone of their conversation was rigid, with information relayed in brisk staccato. They were talking, but I wondered, were they connecting? Did this swapping of words fill a need for either of them?

Listening to them talk transported me back in time to one year ago, when I really needed to have a conversation with two people in my life. Two different people. Two different conversations. The common denominators were that I desperately wanted to be heard by both of them, and they both were people I saw as central to my life.

In both cases, the attempted conversations were painful, abysmal failures. Looking back one year later, I can see that these failures were caused or calcified in different degrees by three factors I overlooked both in myself and in the people I was trying to talk to: trauma, habit, and power.

Lesson 1: Trauma stands between us and healthy communication

With the family members I mentioned, I recognized their tone and cadence as something I’ve done before, turning a tough conversation into an exercise in emotional avoidance, just reporting facts as if I were reading from a giant teleprompter in the sky.

The times I’ve talked this way were times when my communication was being shaped by trauma, by crisis response. Years of crises caused by my cystic fibrosis (CF) have facilitated other communication challenges in my family, including conflict avoidance and a tendency to freeze or fawn, which is sweeping any dispute under the rug or working extra hard to please particular individuals.

Realistically, I don’t think we can get past our trauma-based communication challenges in a single exchange with a person — and I think we all have trauma, whether or not our lives are marked by disease. I think it’s deep, ongoing work to untangle these knots in ourselves.

Lesson 2: Unlearning language habits is hard work

In large part because of CF, my family’s communication pattern fits in the protective category articulated by Ascan Koerner and Mary Anne Fitzpatrick’s family communication patterns theory.

Protective families place an emphasis on agreement and conformity and view disagreements as dangerous and disruptive. As Koerner and Fitzpatrick note, “These families often lack the necessary skills to engage productively in conflict resolution should it come to open disagreements.”

Of course, people who are products of this communication orientation can evolve to have other views of disagreement, but just like overcoming the barriers caused by trauma, unlearning family habits requires intentionality and effort.

Lesson 3: You need power to call the meeting

In my work as a political organizer, it’s common knowledge that if you want to call a meeting with an elected official or other decision-maker, you need to have amassed enough power to call them to the table and make them listen to you. As an organizer, I’m usually pretty clear-headed about when I have or have not acquired that necessary power.

But analyzing power dynamics in personal relationships is thornier. Most of us don’t want to dwell on power imbalances in our personal relationships. What I came to realize in my attempts to have these complicated conversations was that I just didn’t have the power to call the meeting. I’d misread the relationship and banked on more reciprocity. What was urgent to me was not equally felt.

It was a painful realization, but one I had to face.

Only connect!

Once I stopping chasing down conversations that weren’t going to happen and exchanges I couldn’t force, a few things happened. Living with unsaid words or feeling unheard is hard. But the silence forced me to reflect.

I was trying to extract from relationships what was not being given willingly. Being boxed out of these conversations made me consider my boundaries, what counted as too much or too little in my relationships.

I’m still a believer in novelist E.M. Forster’s mandate to “only connect,” but I have better insight now into why that sometimes fails.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


Christie avatar


Oh man, Kate. This one packs a punch. It really hit me at this time in my life when big uncomfy conversations have been a defining feature of my adulthood. I admire how you have examined those "failures" and learned from them. There is so much at play with family dynamics that can make us feel out of our depth when we are otherwise confident communicators. Like your comparison to how you know when you have the power to bring someone to the table at work... it's hard to know when we get there at home. UGH! Thank you for sharing these thoughts and lessons. They're helpful to me in this time, and I'll definitely be looking into some of the readings you've linked.


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