What is it? I can’t really speak for you, so I’ll speak for me. My greatest human challenge is this: for most of my life I’ve been a very poor contingent communicator. In a graduate school clinical psychology class, where the professor invited each of us to sit in the “hot seat” in the front of the room and take “feedback” from the other students, the critique I heard most often was that I didn’t really engage, didn’t really respond in connecting, resonant ways. People didn’t have any strong sense of who I was.
The reason they didn’t have this sense is because I didn’t have it myself. And the reason I didn’t have it, I suspect, is because I was missing critical limbic-prefrontal connections that are created in the brain by the process of early and frequent contingent communication. These missing connections are very likely the result of not having parents consistently present and accounted for and able to regularly respond to me early on – no possessors of superbly organized brains to help organize my own urgent, budding neural networks.
What Is Contingent Communication?
There has been lots of research on the importance of secure attachment in early child development, and by inference, early brain development and integration. When Colwin Trevarthen, currently considered by some to be the world’s foremost authority on attachment research, was asked what he thought might be the most critical factor in promoting secure attachment, he replied without hesitation: contingent communication. This makes sense, since the brain is an associative organ and seems to grow best when getting accurate, attuned responses in safe situations from other caring human beings.
But what specifically is contingent (or collaborative) communication and why is it so important? And why have I struggled with it so? As I mentioned, the general answer is … early neglect. But, like the brain itself, contingent communication is complex and subtle and often exquisitely nuanced. UCLA Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel, writing in The Developing Mind, suggests that these lack of early social interactions are primarily responsible for me failing to develop the ability for easy emotional regulation and something called “response flexibility” – the ability to flexibly and creatively adapt to changing events in lieu of often being emotionally reactive or simply mute (often both/and in my case).
Taken at its roots, there are essentially three components required of us to communicate effectively and contingently. One is we have to receive whatever message is being sent in all it’s complexity. This often includes what isn’t being said, as well as the many nonverbal ways that messages get communicated, much of which is often missing in emails and articles like this one. (Emoticons being a poor substitute for the emotional attunement in face to face interactions :-().
Two is, after we receive a message, we have to accurately understand its meaning. If you say something to me and I simply look back at you blankly (something I have done a lot in my life), or if you email me a message and get nothing back from me in response, it’s difficult to accurately understand the meaning of that kind of non-response. In such an absence, our minds/brains tend to fill the void and attempt to make meaning with explanatory fictions: “He doesn’t like me.” “He’s weird.” “He’s too busy.” “The email must have gone in to the Spam folder.” Rarely though, will the story be: he appears to be someone with damage to Broca’s area which seems to be affecting his ability to use language to readily respond. This in fact often feels like it’s the case though, for me in my experience.
Third and finally, for communication to be contingent, we must respond in a timely and effective manner. A mute response or a long delayed response is neither timely nor effective, and unquestionably fails the test for collaborative/contingent communication. Such failures happen consistently in contemporary culture in my experience, prime examples being one-way radio and television broadcasting, or talking on the phone while multitasking or listening to your iPod while interacting with other people. There are great opportunity costs in these enterprises for brain development and integration.
Most of us have had the experience of being with someone who’s body is present, but whose heart, mind, brain and soul is visiting elsewhere. This frequent inability to be fully present and accounted for, emotionally and cognitively in any moment, seems to have a neurological basis. It’s one that appears to have its roots in the nursery, where, simply put, a lack of contingent communication has inhibited the necessary neural connections that later permit sustained focus and ready emotional regulation. And the good news is that this necessary connectivity is something that neuroscience research is showing contemplative practices seem to be able to help establish later in life. Consequently, kudos are in order to people like Susan Greenland and her family at Inner Kids working diligently to teach kids attention, balance and compassion to help insure those connections get established as early as possible! And it is for similar reasons that I have written a number of books on listening as a contemplative practice – my own attempt to take this personal failing and do my best to turn it into a gift. May we all benefit from diligent practice.