Last night I learned a valuable lesson about hearing someone, doing the listening that needed to happen, and being awakened to what I was seeing with my ears. Confused? I understand that this would sound quite confusing. I also know that how we hear, see, and understand complex situations is not simple. Life isn’t simple.
Most of the time in conversations, people listen while planning what they’ll say next. That is not listening or hearing: it is pretending to listen and to hear. The idea that a great conversation should click along, be fast paced, or flow smoothly is only accurate if you want a bad conversation where you are not heard. So, nix on that sort of conversation.
Learning to listen is an art, unless you are Guinan, the listener, on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then it is supposed to be genetic. Listening is an art, and sitting with someone, and their story, is a gift. The gift is being fully heard, and the art is in shutting up and offering the gift. Those conversations take longer and have a great many bumps in them.
What happened last night? I had gone into a conversation with a friend, who was doing something that I didn’t agree with. I was fully prepared to say that, and more. I began to do just that and then, hearing with my eyes, looking with my ears, I noticed my friend’s pain emerge. I’d never seen it that way before. It emerged in the words, the anger, the deep hurt, and the loss of what should have been in the past—but wasn’t—and what was being created in the present. I understood my friend’s actions in a new way. I had to chastise myself for my previous thoughts. I went to bed last night understanding that I was the one with the issue. Wow, how could I have been so dense?
The answer to the above question is that most of us operate on dense! We only switch to healthy operational listening when we really blow it or get called out on our failure to hear what is being said.
How many times have you gone to visit a friend who is grieving, only to see the dirty house, judged that, and not heard or seen the pain that isn’t being uttered? What is being spoken when we see the house, the hair that needs a cut, the meals that aren’t eaten? Are we hearing with our eyes? Are we seeing with our ears?
What if it is other family members in pain, or friends who are suffering from the same loss? Are we hearing and seeing right past each other? Are we thinking that because it is the same loss we’ll handle it in the same manner and at the same pace? During tense situations we tend to shut off, close down, and generally tune out the excess noise levels that we cannot tolerate. It is difficult to process everything when we’re hurting. What can we do to bring sanity to ourselves and to those we engage with?
Here are some suggestions that, at different times and with different people, have been effective in providing solutions to tricky communication situations. This isn’t a complete list, but it should help you to think of original ideas that will work for you.
- Hold conversations in neutral spaces where you’re both on equal ground.
- Own your feeling words. Feelings are never wrong: how you feel is how you feel.
- We’re going to have different feelings about the same situation because we’re different.
- Meet each other with respect. This means seeing the conversation through to its completion.
- If you need to pause the conversation, when will it resume?
- In a larger group, use a talking stick to indicate who the speaker is. It can be passed around the group. While the talking stick is in use, all members listen, and there is no crosstalk.
- Parroting what someone said is not conveying what they said. Respond to the visual and auditory cues as well. The response you give might have a question attached to it. For instance: You really like the new room, and I’m sensing there is still not something right with the space. Can you tell me more?
- If you know that the conversation is going to be difficult, bring that up first and give the person two or three options around when and how it can be done. Keep it realistic. In other words, hell freezing over, or the equivalent, is not a realistic option.
- Feeling volatile around a subject? Work off some of the energy around it before you engage. Being clearheaded in conversations will improve their outcome.
- Breathe deeply three times before you respond. In those three breaths, question the response you are preparing for respectfulness and consider the long-term damage a remark could make. Explore how you’d feel to be on the receiving end of the statement.