How to see when language fails

The language gap between the heart and the head

Many of us select words first to paint pictures: verbal expressions of our feelings about ourselves, others, and the world.

Others prefer to use words as a way to codify coherent, logical systems.

Confusion compounds when we try and communicate with the same words from these different starting points.

Let’s say our friend shares a grievance with us that they feel towards another person.
We listen carefully, ask questions, and make suggestions for how they might resolve it or perhaps see it from another angle.
But instead of welcoming our help, they grow increasingly agitated and accuse us of not listening.
Now we’re on our back foot. We may point out that we’re helping them solve the problem. (And maybe then they’ll finally stop complaining about it...).

You can imagine where the conversation might go from there.

But who’s right and who’s wrong in this scenario? I think most of us would agree that that’s the wrong question (perhaps we’ve tried asking it).

The bigger problem is that we’re using the same words but falling headlong into a gap in our language:

The Head or Heart Gap: Are we painting pictures or writing code?

What happened in the scenario with our friend?

  • Painting: Our friend opened their heart to paint a picture of their feelings. They’d hoped we’d just sit down and soak in the picture with them.
  • Coding: For us, their distress revved-up the logical, problem-solving part of our brain. We came to the rescue with logic, perspective, and practical steps.

They feel like we invaded their vulnerable heart space with our cold, impersonal logic.

We feel confused and unappreciated.

We fall into this heart-head language gap so often that it’s a narrative cliche in every relationship book.

The heart & head gap.

We have language patterns that subtly alter our words to signal when we’re speaking to individuals or groups (plurals), from who’s perspective (1st person, 2nd person, etc.), and in what timeframe: past, present, or future (tenses).

But there’s a grammatical void when it comes to signaling critical nuances of emotion and relationship. We’re left with non-verbal cues to navigate that minefield, and God help us if we read them incorrectly.

Imagine how much more the head-heart gap widens in text messages, emails, and posts with those essential non-verbal cues stripped away. In-text, this isn’t a gap: it’s a Grand Canyon-sized chasm no string of emoticons can span.

How to bridge the Heart & Head Gap.

Those of us with a conceptual affinity prefer speaking like we’re writing code. But we need to remind ourselves that the most powerful language when it comes to people isn’t the most precise or rational, but most picturesque; The memes, catchphrases, and names that spread and stick bypass our reason and tug at our heartstrings.

Those of us with a relational affinity are healthier when we remember that feelings and emotional empathy – no matter how genuinely and well-expressed – is a starting point, not an endpoint. There are typically impersonal habits, systems, and knowledge we’ll need to reach a long-term solution.

Mental maps help us bridge language gaps.

Mental maps can help us navigate our relational, emotional spaces, not only conceptual spaces.

Thinking in maps is like upgrading to an empathy GPS compared with navigating using turn-by-turn directions for every person we meet.

For me, the relational world feels like foreign territory. But with a map in mind, I can see and value perspectives I’d previously dismissed as fuzzy thinking or emotional hand-waving.

Now, when I a friend or colleague shares their perspective about a person, group, or project at work, a blip flashes onto my mental radar screen.

When it flashes up in the relational world, that’s a signal to sit up and strap in because this might be a bumpy trip. Or it may appear more in my comfort zone down in the quiet conceptual world of abstract systems and ideas (whew).

Either way, I’m more consciously able to meet people in their frame of mind, not just mine.

Seeing one or more perspectives in space feels strange at first. But I find it more natural than force-recalling personality models or acting out memorized relational techniques.

While the head heart gap is significant, our daily communication is further complicated by another language gap: we miss the forest of the trees & the trees for the forest.

Each month, I write a short essay about the Chaos Map:

Thank you. Stay tuned for an introduction email.
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