I learned recently that airline pilots spend about 90% of flight time off-course. Using feedback from their on-board guidance system and from air traffic control, they constantly course correct for turbulence, winds and weather conditions.
I find this very comforting, especially since I find myself “off-course” in life and relationships most of the time. If you’d asked me at 18 what my life would be like in my 40s, it certainly would not have been this.
Despite life’s weather conditions, winds and turbulence, setting clear intentions while responding to both internal and external feedback systems has been foundational to getting myself back on course.
Communication works like this too.
The key is to remain flexible and attuned to feedback as you go. What works in one relationship, may not work in another one. People are simply not all the same.
Take stonewalling, for example.
When someone withdraws from further conversation by getting quiet, withdrawing from you or shutting down, what is your usual response?
Do you take it personally, believing it means you aren’t important or valued?
Do you go on the attack, believing that their behavior is wrong and needs to be analyzed, fixed or changed?
Do you try to provoke them into interacting with you by voicing more hurtful or outrageous things, even if it means saying things you will later regret?
Do you “up the ante” on them by going even more quiet and disengaged yourself, silently vowing to make them regret it by doing the same back to them?
Instead, what would it be like to simply respond to stonewalling-like behavior as neutral guidance? Feedback from air traffic control, as it were? An indication of changing weather conditions?
What if nothing was wrong with you or them? How might acceptance and curiosity expand your range of choices?
Getting back on course might look more like this:
Don’t take it personally: I find it helpful to remind myself that what I may call “stonewalling” is simply a strategy this person uses to manage their emotions when they are feeling overwhelmed. They may need some space, safety, clarity and self-connection, and don’t yet have the awareness or ability to ask for it.
Don’t judge. Not yourself; Not the other person. Criticism is such a royal waste of time and energy: choose to be curious, tender, gentle and open instead.
Reflect: Are my choices opening up or shutting down further interactions? Use that as feedback to adjust your approach.
Try new words. For example, “I’m longing to hear about what is happening inside you, but don’t want to push you to talk before you feel ready. I’m going to back off for a while, but this doesn’t mean I am abandoning you or punishing you. I just want to give you the space you might need to get grounded and clear, and when you are ready to talk, would you come and let me know?” And, you could follow that up with, “If I am getting this wrong and you are needing something different from me (for example, for me to sit with you in silence instead of leaving you alone), I am open to hearing that too – just let me know.”
Being off-course is a necessary part of the journey. Life is not about getting anything right, but rather about staying attuned, responsive and relational.
Piloting our lives and relationships, maybe all we really need to do is …
Pick a destination (ex., loving, healing relationships with myself and others),
Plot out a course (ex., engaging fully with all life brings my way),
Attune to internal feedback systems (ex., my feelings, my needs, my awareness, my meaning-making),
Be receptive to external feedback system (ex., the impact I am having on others; other’s perceptions, ideas, feelings and needs) and then
Engage and enjoy the wild ride.