The most important skill needed in building and keeping a loving relationship is communication. When we begin relationships, we attend to the other person because we want to get to know them. We listen to their likes and dislikes, history, family dynamics, dreams and fears. We spend hours in conversation, discovering each other. No fact too small, no story too long.
The building of the relationship has newness and surprises. Then, over time, real life happens. Work pressure, money issues, no time to connect, and parenting tensions become our ever-present companion. More and more conversations have morphed into an argument or confrontation. How did we get here? Whatever happened to the way we used to communicate?
The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Who is fair in all the world who listens to us? Here I am — this is me in my nakedness, with my wounds, my secret grief, my despair, my betrayal, my pain, which I can’t express, my terror, my abandonment. Oh, listen to me for a day, an hour, a moment, lest I expire in my terrible wilderness, my lonely silence. Oh God, is there no one to listen?”
There is. The person who you love and loves you is there to listen. And like you, they have forgotten the most important component of deep listening: being present. There are two parts of being present, one physical and one emotional. Both of them need attending to if a conversation is to stay rational, adult, and successful.
First we’ll look at the physical aspects of the distraction of technology and multi-tasking. When we add the distraction that comes with multi-tasking we are in trouble, because listening is a single-minded reasoning task, and multi-tasking and listening effectively at the same time are mutually exclusive. When we look at technology, with phones ringing, computers popping up e-mail, cell phone ring tones and text messages beeping, we know technology is at work distracting us from effectively listening.
Now, let’s add yet another layer of multi-tasking, the kind that is second nature and almost invisible to us as multi-tasking. Many of us are guilty of looking through the mail while talking; typing a quick email on our smartphone while in conversation; or having a conversation while the television is on.
One of my students made this point in his listening reflection paper, “As a manager, I am required to constantly interact with others every day. When I come home at the end of the day I want nothing more than to sit in silence without the requirement to listen. My wife, however, wants nothing more than to tell me about her day, and so the listening challenge begins. While I have previously heard her talk, I realize now that I have not really listened. I have allowed my needs to get in the way of my ability to be present to what my wife’s thoughts and emotions are.”
There are some simple steps to pull the distraction of multi-tasking out of our conversations. When sharing a conversation with your significant other, find a place, away from distractions, where the ritual of debriefing is the top priority in each other’s eyes. Finding out what happened in each other’s day, and how they feel about the day requires that you choose a physical space away from the television, video games, computer, music, the mail, cooking, children or others who might distract you. Make sure what you are sitting on is comfortable. By creating such an environment, deep listening will take place. And do make the debriefing a ritual! Even if you can only get five minutes of uninterrupted time, make it happen at the same time every day.
Now we’ll tackle “being present.” We need to do everything in our power to take the “I” out of listening. When we “suspend self” as the listener, we are able to truly take in the speaker’s message without filtering the incoming content and emotion through our own listening barriers.
Being “present” is a simple concept, yet difficult to achieve. Being present is the act of being in the present moment in our mind and body, not thinking about the past or future, but being in the moment with the person we are listening to. We are not wishing to be somewhere else. Being present means practicing self-control. It means suppressing the urge to convey our own thoughts. It means focusing, not on ourselves, but concentrating on understanding what the other has to say and how they are saying it.
We need to stop talking! As difficult as that may be sometimes, not talking can move a conversation forward because the speaker gets a chance to develop and finish a complete thought. It is amazing what we can learn about people’s lives, what motivates them, what they know and what they are passionate about, if we just listen.
Eckhart Tolle, in Stillness Speaks, says it wonderfully: “Far more important than what you are listening to is the act of listening itself, the space of conscious presence that arises as you listen. That space is a unifying field of awareness in which you meet the other person without the separative barriers created by conceptual thinking. And now the other person is no longer ‘other.’ In that space, you are joined together as one awareness, one consciousness.”
Being present is no easy task. It requires taking our ego out of the conversation and keeping our reactive mind under control. However, the brain is an amazing muscle that can be trained and strengthened. In the coming months I encourage you to become aware of when you are present in a conversation and when your mind — and listening — is wandering, When you notice your mind wandering, you can take action by pushing aside for the moment what you are thinking about, and get back to listening fully.