A few years ago, I dislocated my hip during karate class. It caused some tearing inside the joint making it difficult to walk and impossible to sit or stand normally. About a year afterward, a friend of mine asked me if I’d ever figured out what actually happened to cause the injury. Well, she already knew I was injured during karate class (we attended together) and knew some of the recovery difficulties since then, so I thought she must want the whole story. I backed up to what I thought was really the beginning…
A few months before the injury, I recognized my karate stances were often off a bit unless I was consciously focused on it. I needed to work on breaking my bad habit of leaning and build a new habit of balancing my weight on both the right and left sides. I knew that if I paid attention often enough and corrected my balance, eventually it would become ingrained muscle memory so that my natural state would be balanced without the need to think about it. What I soon discovered was that I never balanced my weight unless I focused on it. Whether standing, sitting behind a desk or driving, I always leaned toward my right side or in some way took weight off my left without thinking about it. I would do things like prop my right ankle under my left thigh, cross my left leg over my right, or perch just my right side on the edge of a chair if I wasn’t planning to stay there long. When I really started to notice this, and the fact that sitting up-right was uncomfortable, I remembered that I had the same problem as a kid. Whenever I was told to “sit up straight” I couldn’t hold that position for long without squirming. It was just too uncomfortable for me.
So what actually happened to injure my hip was this: a bone cyst (pocket of fluid in the bone) positioned directly above the head of my left femur inside the hip socket finally had too much stress and burst while all of my weight was on my left leg. The fluid flooded the joint and the joint popped out of alignment. It led to a whole host of issues with that joint because it’s simply not possible to let a hip joint rest unless you are in that perfect “zero gravity” position so that all your weight is actually spread across your back.
Well, I guess I should’ve led with that last bit instead of backing up to a few months earlier. I never got past the “I was working on making balance a habit” before she interrupted me with the virtues of proper posture and then over-rode the conversation with her personal thoughts on balance. Shortly thereafter the subject was changed when another person approached.
The discussion I was trying to have with my friend completely failed on both sides. On my side: Since she was my karate buddy, she already heard me express concern over my stances, we both knew of their importance from our instructor, so I assumed she wanted the whole story including what led up to the injury. On her side: She assumed she knew where I was going with the balance thing and never found out that aligning my posture actually caused a new problem over an old one I didn’t know I had.
This is a good example of how assumptions can quickly derail a conversation so communication just doesn’t happen. In this instance, the discussion, although serious in nature, was not relationship-threatening so it wasn’t that big a deal when we didn’t communicate effectively. But humans do this sort of thing all the time to each other, even when we think we are really trying to be thoughtful.
Someone recently said to me “communication between two people is difficult.”
My thought is communication is difficult, especially when it involves humans. (I doubt animals have anywhere near as much trouble understanding each other.) It got me thinking again about how hard communicating effectively really is for us.
As I’ve mentioned in a earlier post, Words: When Language Breaks Down, words alone are enough to easily cause miscommunication, so listening fully with your whole being, present in the moment, is paramount. This also means setting aside previous judgments on the topic and the person trying to communicate with you. Trying to avoid jumping to conclusions about what you assume they are trying to say and actively listen to what they actually say.
I think one of the most hurtful things we humans do to each other is to refuse to listen. We all do it, and we do it frequently. We think things like “well, I asked so that shows I care, right?” Not really if you didn’t bother to listen for an answer. It just shows you have manners enough to politely inquire but not that you actually care. “I heard you! You said…” Well, maybe you heard it but did you actually understand whatever point they were trying to convey? I find when the subject is important enough that I’ve asked whether or not I was heard, the usual response is only a part of what I said and my point is often missed entirely.
Not listening conveys to the other person that their view is unimportant, worthless, or the subject that’s obviously important to them is pointless to you. Especially when the subject for discussion and the people involved really do matter, not listening sends the message they don’t matter to you.
I know we can’t help but apply our opinions and assumptions to the topic of conversation rather than genuinely attempting to listen to what another person is trying to say. Adding more people of course just adds more variables to the equation and the likelihood of communicating effectively lowers even further. There will be exceptions, as with anything, but I actually think two humans, versus any other potential combination, have the best chance of communicating well.
So, listening with full, undivided attention? You mean setting down the phone and turning off the TV?
No. Not exactly.
Really listening, actively listening, is much more than just eliminating distractions. It means watching body language and gestures, listening to voice pitch, tension and inflection, in addition to the words they choose to use.
Of course it works best if and when both parties are willing to give their full, undivided attention to the conversation, and often undivided attention doesn’t happen unless the topic for discussion is serious enough that communicating well is important. But then again, during a serious discussion is when it’s most likely to be fraught with personal bias thereby breaking down those lines of communication before they even begin. Active listening helps tremendously.
Take for example a heated argument between two people. Chances are good that whether either one is doing a good job advocating for their own side is irrelevant simply because the other side is not listening. All each person is really paying attention to is their own feelings on the subject, maybe even attempting dominate the conversation rather than communicate at all. Once anger and/or hurt feelings are ruling the conversation, the brain’s fight or flight mode is activated. You shut down your ability to receive information and are no longer hearing anything the other person is saying, nevermind giving them your full attention. Is it really any wonder why arguing doesn’t actually solve anything?
It is possible to debate opposing views and actually be heard, but again, listening fully is paramount. Otherwise you’re just talking at someone instead of with them.
The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT.
When you give your full attention to a conversation, it doesn’t mean “wait until they pause so you can jump in with your opinion.” It means LISTEN! Listen with both ears and eyes!
Give the gift of listening
Offering your time and effort to actively listen during a conversation really is a gift to the other person. Give them respect for their opinions even when you don’t agree. It shows you care. When you’re paying attention, you’re more likely to notice when they are trying just as hard to communicate with you too.
If you’re having communication problems with someone you care about, I urge you to actively listen with your full, undivided attention at the next opportunity. Acknowledge that whatever the person is trying to convey to you is important to them. Give them the respect of genuinely trying to hear and understand what they are trying to tell you.
Two eyes, two ears, one mouth!
Watch their body language for clues about what they are really saying beyond the words. We often do this unconsciously, but being aware of it informs the mind more for conscious understanding. We tend to speak more honestly and clearly with body language than words. For example, you may hear someone brush off something as unimportant, saying “oh, it’s fine” yet their body posture is tense and expectant. It does matter and it’s not fine.
What is their body language saying?
Are they leaning forward and interested? Away and avoiding? Are they gesturing to emphasize a point or implore understanding? Are they hesitant and jumpy (worried about your reaction)? Are they casual and dismissive (not really paying attention themselves)? Are they making eye contact with you?
The eyes can tell a lot about what the person is really feeling too, and you get clues about what they choose not to say. If you’re paying attention and watching their body language, you will naturally make eye contact. This further communicates to them that you are here, in the present moment, and listening. It may just be enough to encourage them to trust and confide their true feelings.
Be conscious of your own body language. Crossed arms or leaning away unconsciously tells the other person you are not willing to listen despite any verbal assurances you may offer. Keeping your arms and hands open and relaxed works double duty as it also increases your mind’s ability to listen.
What words do they choose? Are they attempting to describe something to the best of their ability? Are they clearly trying to choose words that won’t cause a negative reaction? Set aside what you think they mean and what you think they have to say (even if you’re sure you’ve heard it before). Set aside your own bias so you can hear them as clearly as possible. Your own thoughts and feelings will rise, sure, but just set them aside for a few minutes and pay attention. Allow yourself to hear what the other person is really trying to say so you can understand their view and the whole of the situation better.
Allow for the possibility of you may not immediately understand. In fact, if their view is different from your own, it’s likely you won’t immediately understand. Keep listening, keep trying. Trying will get you much further in communicating effectively than shutting down or overriding the conversation.
We humans are an impatient lot. Wait for them to finish before jumping in to offer your opinion or ask questions. Allow them to communicate as much as they need and clarify their own points without interruption. Little can escalate a discussion into an argument like being interrupted.
Can you say it another way? Try approaching the subject from a different angle. Sometimes phrasing can make all the difference. Maybe you/they didn’t get it the first time, but rephrase and it clicks. Especially in the English language, there’s bound to be at least a half-dozen different ways to say the same thing. Try them all and encourage them to too.
Why? Be sure to ask or explain why. We often need to know the reasons behind things in order to process and understand. If you don’t understand why or don’t have a reason why, say so. Chances are this will open new avenues of discussion and understanding on both sides.
When you’re the one talking, be earnest and sincere with arms open, relaxed, and make eye contact. Take into consideration what you know is a trigger (raised voice, saying that thing that flips a switch, whatever) and avoid it. Allow for the possibility they won’t understand you right away either. Don’t think you need to keep repeating your view over and over again until they eventually concede. There’s a vast difference between concession just to get you to shut up and actually understanding your point.
Choose words carefully. When we lash out at each other, using words to inflict hurt, it comes from a place within ourselves that hurts. We reflexively try to make the other person feel what we are feeling, usually without thinking about it first. This is counterproductive if you actually hope to improve communication between you. If the other person lashes out, recognize they are hurting and this is a reflexive reaction, so try not to react to their reaction. Try to understand why they felt the need to lash out instead of saying what they really think besides the hurt. There’s a good chance one or both of you misunderstood something just then, so clarify or ask for clarification. Be sure to weigh in your mind what might be a better way to pose a question so as to get an informative response rather than a reflexive hurt response.
“How long are you staying?” sounds a lot better than “When are you leaving?”
If it’s a rehash argument, try approaching the discussion as if you’ve never talked about it before. Try not to bring in assumptions and judgments of past discussions to the current one. Ask them to clarify a point or explain how they feel about something, even if they’ve said it before, because listening with your full attention may very well yield a new perspective, an “aha” moment of understanding.
Don’t ignore something you don’t understand and act like it doesn’t matter. You can pretty much guarantee it does matter. Ask!
Be calm and know you each have something that needs to be heard by the other. Be ready to accept the fact you may not agree anyway and that’s okay!
Above all, LISTEN!
Being heard is the bulk of any communication problem. Provide the gift of listening to your loved one the next time they need it. You will both benefit.
(Note: This entry has been rearranged since it was first published to hopefully better communicate to the reader. General content remains the same.)