According to interpersonal neurobiology, relationships can be understood as a process that involves the sharing of energy and information flow. This is the movement across time of energy that has symbolic value (a symbol is something stands for something else – like the word ‘tree’ stands for or points towards the physical reality of a tree). This flow can happen in the body, or between bodies (between people). From this point of view, the ‘mind’ is understood as an emergent process that arises as self-experience or subjectivity, and self-organisation in the form of regulation.
When we communicate, we exchange energy. This energy might manifest as ‘signals’ that contain information. Nonverbal cues like a laugh has meaning which we communicate to another person. It can indicate an enjoyable state of humour or fun; or it can mean something completely different, like that a person is nervous or uncomfortable.
Even just our presence alone communicates. For others who are also present, our presence is felt, just like we feel their presence. Equally birds, animals, insects, mountains, cities, art, music are all ‘presences’ that can be felt and hence are communicating something, however subtle, to us. This energy may or may not contain information. Although there may be no explicit meaning communicated by simply ‘being there’, it may be a meaningful experience to be there. Think, for example, of someone sitting quietly by your bed side when you are sick, or someone important being present for a big moment in your life.
When there is no symbol with the energy pattern – like a word – this is called simply ‘energy’. All information is created through the flow of energy but not all energy has information. Relationships involve many different ways of sharing energy and information which we can call communicating. It is through emerging patterns (meaning freshly arising, new) that relationships are formed and sustained. This is why relationships, like the mind itself, are about flow. They are in a constant state of flux and change.
When relationships go well, we feel seen and respected. The ‘other’ understands the meanings held in our mind in that moment. There is harmony and we feel good. But when our thoughts and emotions are not seen and respected, we can feel hurt and frustrated. This is when relationships become more challenging.
We are always communicating. Through words and other nonverbal expressions, we send out messages to the world. These messages can be heard and seen. When others don’t ‘receive’ and pick up on these messages we feel disconnected and alone. This is like the person on the deserted island putting a message in a bottle – the hope is that someone, somewhere will pick up on this and receive their communication.
The quality of our relationship depends on how well this energy and information flows back and forth.
Given how central relationships are to our lives and well-being and that they depend on the quality of our communications, what are the conditions which support healthy relating and good communication? What are some of the blocks to good relationships?
Our ability to form and sustain good relationships would seem to be dependant upon our ability to connect. Our ability to connect is dependant on our capacity to be present and to pay attention so that we can be open to receiving and ‘reading’ all the cues and messages, subtle and not subtle, that the other is sending us. It requires a receptive attention.
Equally, good relationships require the capacity to express and communicate our feelings and needs well. We need to be aware of what we are feeling and needing and have the ability to deliver this information to the other person.
How would you assess your ability to attend or listen to the messages the ‘other’ sends?
How would you assess your ability to express yourself honestly and clearly?
What aspects of your communication style work well? What aspects need attention and development?