Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Best Gift You'll Ever Give

I'm sure no one who enjoys the company of dogs will find this surprising.

Many people would prefer to have conversations with their dogs than with their spouses.

It's not because dogs are wittier, have a greater grasp of the language, or will answer thorny philosophical questions.

It's because they listen. Or, we think they listen. Regardless, they give off the appearance of rapt attention, and as humorist Dave Barry says, "You can say any fool thing to a dog, and the dog will give you this look that says, 'My God, you're right! I never would've thought of that!'"

That's why we like to talk to dogs. (Though I confess I talk to my dogs not because I think they listen to my ramblings, but because I amuse myself by talking to them. I also talk to myself a lot, so there you go.) I'm sure people have other reasons, too.

"The dog is a yes-animal. Very popular with those who cannot afford a yes-man." ~Robertson Davies

But this story brings up a better question for me. Why don't we humans listen better to our loved ones? Many of us pay rapt attention to inconsequential stuff: pop music lyrics, TV shows, sports statistics, snippets about celebrities. Some of us also pay attention to teachers, and other sources of education. What one chooses to pay attention to depends on what one values. It also depends on what one hears frequently, or less frequently. It's easy to "tune out" conversations with our loved ones because they seem to become repetitive, or we find them mundane.

"tuning out" those we care about--those we should be listening to--sends a message we probably do not want to send. It says to those people that we don't care, or that we have better things to do.

This is hurtful and depressing, and it definitely doesn't help our relationships. Becoming a better listener can change your relationships immensely, and improve your life.

Try this experiment.

The next time your partner, husband, wife, sibling, parent, lover, girlfriend, boyfriend, your child, or a trusted friend asks (or just begins) to speak with you, do the following.

Put down everything your hands are busy with. This means your computer, phone, coffee cup, paper, pen, Wii controller, whatever. Stop touching it. If it is going to tempt you, put it away.

If the person is sitting, you should sit across from them. If they are standing, you should stand across from them, or invite them to sit.

Face the person, and put your empty hands on the table, or on your lap, loosely clasped. If you are standing, they should be at your sides loosely. Do NOT put them in your pockets, or hide them in any way. Do NOT cross your arms in front of your chest.

Your hands should be visible, empty, and still.

Stand or sit comfortably, back straight, but not rigid. You should be comfortable, but not slouchy. Face the person directly, and look them in the eyes, warmly.

Now, here's the tricky part.

LET. THEM. SPEAK. Do not interrupt. Keep your expression relaxed, but attentive.

LISTEN FULLY. You may not know how to do this, because if you are like most people, you have lost the ability to do it. It's like a muscle--you use it, or you lose it.

You can get it back. Starting now.

Wipe your mind clear--as much as possible--of all thoughts that do not pertain to what the speaker is saying. Do not think about work, or to-do lists, gossip, or what is happening later that day. Ignore your worries. Do not daydream.

Do not think of questions to ask the speaker when s/he is finished. Do not think of what you will say in reply to his or her statements.

Just pay attention, and listen.

Pay attention to the speaker as if your life depends upon absorbing what s/he is saying. No matter how mundane the topic seems (or actually is), your job right then is to hear it, and hear it fully.

When the speaker has finished their thought, or story, you can do one of two things.

If you are pressed for time, smile, and say "thank you" with genuine warmth, then go about the rest of your day. Your experiment is finished.

If you are not pressed for time (and really, can you not make a little bit of time for this?), do the following.

When s/he finishes speaking, count slowly to 5 (to yourself, silly). There should be a marked pause here. Smile. If the end of their speech did not contain a question you need to answer, lean forward just a little, continuing to look them warmly in the eye, and say, "Tell me more."

I don't care how silly, dumb, old, tired, or ridiculous the topic was. Ask them to tell you more. It wasn't silly, dumb, old, tired, or ridiculous to them.

This is someone you love. Someone who gave birth to you, or fathered you, or to whom you gave birth, or fathered, or you have known a long time, or with whom you are intimate. This is someone who knows you, and loves you. This is someone you cherish. This is someone important, someone without which you would not be the person you are right now. This person matters. And what they think, and say, also matters.

Doesn't it?

This exercise is simple to do. It doesn't take hardly any extra time. And you know what? It changes things. When you make the conscious choice to start listening, really listening, to your loved ones, your life will change, and so will theirs.

You don't have to do this with every person you talk to. Reserve it for loved ones who need to tell a story, or convey information. Do it once, and see if you don't want to do it more often.

Extra Credit: the teacher in me wants to give you a chance to excel. So here are 2 things that will put the cherry and whipped topping on this exercise.

1. When the above exchange is over, and you are alone again, get a pen and a notebook or sheet of paper and write down what transpired. You can write a synopsis of the conversation, or just how it made you feel. You can make notes of how it seemed to affect the speaker (if you noticed at all). You can write that it frustrated you, or bored you, or made you think. You don't have to be Tolstoy; no one will read this but you (and your heirs after you are dead--ha ha). Just write it down.

2. About 5-7 days later, approach the speaker with purpose, and ask them about the story. You might say something like, "That incident you told me about with your did that turn out?" Or, "have you made up your mind about college yet?" Or, "I was wondering if you were feeling better since our talk about Joe's illness, and how it was affecting you." Inquire about it because you want to know, and because you remember the conversation. And listen to their reply, just like you listened the first time.

"Excellence is not an act, but a habit. We are, therefore, what we repeatedly do." ~Aristotle

More on this topic to come. Let me know how the experiment goes for you.

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