Use This Tool To Bridge Communication Gaps and Promote Empathy

One of the many things I like about poetry is that it can be a uniquely effective communication tool. It can reach people on an emotional, intuitive level that is not always easy to do with spoken words or with prose. I find this true even — perhaps especially — with my less poetically inclined friends and family members.

Maybe it’s an emotion or experience that’s otherwise difficult to put into words, or an area where you and the other person just don’t see things the same way. Or you want to express something that goes deeper than ordinary communication methods, or help someone understand something about you or your life that you otherwise don’t know how to explain, or that they haven’t been able to relate to.

Poetry can be a great bridge between people, a promoter of understanding and a helpful way to partake together of a feeling or moment in a way that can break down barriers between them. It can help to make the “other” (possibly you) seem less foreign to someone you show a poem to, or ease the burden of someone who felt isolated by a situation they had felt only they could understand.

One example of poetry that could be used in this way is the following poem by Bob Hicok, about caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease.


Chairs move by themselves, and books.

Grandchildren visit, stand

new and nameless, their faces’ puzzles

missing pieces. She’s like a fish


in deep ocean, its body made of light.

She floats through rooms, through

my eyes, an old woman bereft

of chronicle, the parable of her life.


And though she’s almost a child

there’s still blood between us:

I passed through her to arrive.

So I protect her from knives,


stairs, from the street that calls

as rivers do, a summons to walk away,

to follow. And dress her,

demonstrate how buttons work,


when she sometimes looks up

and says my name, the sound arriving

like the trill of a bird so rare

it’s rumored no longer to exist.

Anyone who has taken care of, or even visited, a relative with a similar ailment can probably relate to this poem. The particulars may not be the same, and they may not ever have thought of it exactly the way it is so unusually and poignantly expressed here, but it resonates with feelings we have had or can empathize with.

And anyone who has not been there will be better able to relate to someone who is going through it after reading this, maybe to a greater degree than if that person simply tried to explain it to them.

The vacant, elusive gaze; the need to be re-taught how things, like buttons, work; the changing of roles — needing to protect a parent from herself; and the unbreakable bond of love and gratitude a child feels for a parent, even as they are slipping away.

“I passed through her to arrive.

So I protect her from knives,”

Then there are those rare, surprising, heart-sustaining moments when you are reminded that you are known and loved, which the poet expresses so well in the last stanza.

Poetry can promote understanding and allow friends, family and strangers to live a shared moment, seeing something with newly aligned eyes. It highlights what is common and universal in the human condition, even by using the personal details that make us different.

Now just a moment on technical aspects of the poem. Again, there are many visual images you can see in your mind. And of course there’s always the matter of sound that helps bring the poem alive.

Though not a traditionally rhymed poem, there are repeated sounds, both vowel sounds, like in rhymes, and initial consonant sounds, that give it a musical, ‘poetic’ quality: “knives/arrive”; “through/rooms”; “new and nameless”; “nameless/faces’; “stairs/streets/summons.”

Even the sometimes unusual punctuation and sentence structure in this poem effectively convey the disconnect and disorientation both parties feel, and the attempts to make sense of the now familiar unfamiliar.

So much can be said in a poem, that reaches the mind, and the heart, and places that words may not otherwise reach.

The next time you find a poem you enjoy and find meaningful to your life, try sending it to someone you’ve had difficulty communicating with, or who is going through a situation you — or they — don’t know how to talk about.

You may be surprised at how gaps are filled in, differences are overcome, and the joy, or relief, of a shared emotional and aesthetic experience deepens your relationship.