I have been thinking about what makes for meaningful conversations with people. This thought was prompted by a quote I saw in a desk calendar my daughter gave me for this year. It’s the quote for May 16th which reads:

“You cannot talk butterfly language with caterpillar people.”

It's the topic of today's episode.

To access future episodes it’s easiest if you go to JohnCertalic.com, and scroll halfway down the page where you enter your name and email address. Then click on the follow or subscribe button. You’ll get a brief email each week from me with a link to the latest episode, together with a description of what it’s about.

A useful metaphor

For today I want to think out loud about this idea of meaningful conversations, and several ways of considering this based on the quote I mentioned in the beginning, “you cannot talk butterfly language with caterpillar people.”

I like this butterfly/caterpillar metaphor for a couple of reasons. One way of looking at it would suggest butterfly people have a language caterpillar people don’t understand because they haven’t quite arrived yet like Butterfly people have. It may not be what the author intended, but it comes off a bit condescending. I’ve been in conversations where the person talking clearly views themself as a butterfly person looking down their nose at the caterpillars in the group. I bet you’ve seen this too. It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation when this is dynamic is present.

On the other hand, there is something beautiful about a butterfly person who remembers what it was like to be a caterpillar with all its limitations, and who has a great appreciation for the metamorphosis he or she has been through.

These are the patient people among us, usually older and wiser. People tolerant and understanding of those in a stage of life where they once were. Meaningful conversations with butterfly people like this are often filled with grace and wisdom. They understand caterpillar people haven’t yet been through what they’ve been through. They don’t have the words, the language, to process what Butterfly people have come to experience.

An obstacle to meaningful conversations

Another example of an obstacle to a meaningful conversation is when parents try to reason their young children into obedience using butterfly language. When they explain the logic and motives behind their well-meaning directives. It usually doesn’t work, because young kids are caterpillars and they don’t understand butterfly language.

Instead, parents need to speak caterpillar language to kids that goes something like this, “you need to obey what I’m telling you because you need to obey. That’s your job right now, simply to obey, regardless of what you want to do. When you get older and are able to understand, I’ll explain why I’m telling you to obey. But for now, you don’t need to know why, you just need to obey.”

This issue of teaching children to obey is an important one that we’ll talk about in a future episode.

The “curse of knowledge” hinders communication

Another reason it’s hard to have meaningful conversations sometimes is because of the curse of knowledge. It’s the concept that you know something so well, so intimately, that it’s difficult to imagine what it was like to NOT KNOW what you know. And because you can’t imagine what it’s like to not know something, you have difficulty in passing on your knowledge to someone who doesn’t have it. You try, but it’s hard because you forgot what it’s like to be on the other side of the knowledge.

Computer people are like this. They have the curse of knowledge because they assume you know what they know, or at least have a piece of rudimentary knowledge of technical stuff. They talk in butterfly language, but you only speak caterpillar. So there’s a disconnect and a barrier to a meaningful conversation when it comes to fixing a computer problem.

On an interpersonal level, relationships can be difficult when people speak different emotional languages. Janet and I have a friend who grew up in a dysfunctional family, where everything revolved around pleasing Mom. Keeping Mom happy was the mission of her husband and each of the 3 kids. And Mom let everyone know when she wasn’t happy and who in the family failed in their role of keeping her happy. Guilt and shame were dished out as regularly as a weekly allowance.

A friend who learned butterfly language

As an adult, our friend went for counseling to deal with this emotional baggage, and over time grew healthy because she learned a butterfly language that helped her process her experience in healthy ways. She even learned how to speak her mother’s caterpillar language which on occasion even led to meaningful conversations.

Sadly, her siblings didn’t do the same. As adults, they continue trying to please Mom. But it’s never enough. It never is with people who live to be served, rather than to serve. Unlike our friend who went for counseling to learn a new language, her siblings moved to other parts of the country so as to have as little contact with Mom as possible. They continue to speak caterpillar to this day.

Let’s go back to parenting for a moment. Parents sometimes suffer from the curse of knowledge. We can’t remember what it was like to be a kid. To be afraid as a child. To be rejected by one’s friends. Or to be frustrated with not knowing how to do something your peers do with ease.

This curse of knowledge can get in the way of meaningful conversations between parents and their children.

So what does all this mean for YOU?

If you’re a butterfly person in your relationships, it would really help if you thought back to what it was like when you were a caterpillar. Back then, you didn’t know what you didn’t know.

The same is true for the caterpillar people in your life right now. They don’t know what they don’t know, either. So cut them some slack, give them a break. They probably won’t respond as well to you TELLING them how fulfilling it is to be a butterfly in your relationships. Show them instead. In relationships, caterpillar people crawl. Show them as a butterfly person they can fly!

And if you’re a caterpillar right now, watch the butterfly people around you. Do what they do to have meaningful conversations. Don’t stay stuck in your relationships. Break out of your cocoon. You were made for something more. Don’t settle for crawling when you could be flying.

Here’s the main takeaway I hope you remember from today’s episode

A path to meaningful conversations between people starts with working to understand others and their frame of reference, even when it’s very different from your own. To learn to speak the language of another is work, but it’s worth it.


In closing, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about today’s episode. I hope your thinking was stimulated to work toward being a butterfly person with compassion for the caterpillars in your life.

For when you do, it will help you experience the joy of relationships God intends for you. Because after all, You Were Made for This.

Well, that’s it for today. Please consider telling others about this podcast if you think it would be interesting and helpful to them. And don’t forget to spread a little relational sunshine around the people you meet this week. Spark some joy for them. And I’ll see you again next time.

Another episode you may want to listen to

139: Why Should I Listen to This Podcast?

Our Sponsor

You Were Made for This is sponsored by Caring for Others, a missionary care ministry. The generosity of people like you supports our ministry. It enables us to continue this weekly podcast and other services we provide to missionaries around the world.