From time to time we find ourselves in situations where we are finding it difficult to comprehend what has happened – times of loss, crisis or sudden change, for example. It is as if our head knows, but our heart hasn’t caught up, and so ‘it doesn’t seem real’ can be a thought that runs through our mind. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon and nothing to be concerned about in itself. However, we need to be wary of two potential problems. One is that, when we find ourselves in such a situation, we may make decisions that we later regret because we have been destabilized by the change that has occurred. For example, some people can respond quite rashly in situations where they are confused about what is happening. Second, if we are trying to help somebody who is in a ‘heart hasn’t caught up with head’ situation, we have to bear in mind that they may not be taking on board what we are saying to them because of the sense of emotional shock they are experiencing. We therefore have to choose our moments carefully in interacting with someone in such circumstances.
Communication goes awry quite regularly, which is not surprising when you think about how much of it we do in any given day. One common way in which communication breaks down is when what is said (or written) does not cover both topic and comment. The topic is what we are talking about and the comment is what we are saying about it. They can be articulated separately (‘You know that book on stress I lent you? [topic] I will need it back if that’s OK [comment]’) or together (‘Can you please let me have back that book on stress I lent you?’). Either is fine when both topic and comment are covered, but often, there is a topic identified, but it is not clear what the comment is (‘You’ve got my book on stress, haven’t you?’). Is this simply a comment to check that the book is still in their possession or is it an indirect request for it to be returned? It is not clear. Similarly, effective communication can be undermined by making a comment without specifying the topic – something that commonly evokes a response along the lines of: ‘Sorry, I’m not clear what you’re referring to?’ or ‘Sorry, I’m not with you’. What can be much worse, though, is when the topic is not specified and the person listening makes a false assumption about what the topic is – and then we have a recipe for major misunderstanding and miscommunication. So, it pays to make sure that we are always clear in communicating both topic and comment.