The art of listening


My roommate Tara and I often find ourselves disagreeing about something for several minutes until we realize we’re arguing the exact same point. While these are never serious arguments, but rather trivial misunderstandings through texts or about movie plots, they have shed light on the huge communication problem we have with friends, family, roommates, co-workers and significant others. We can blame Facebook chat and texting, where sarcasm, joking and sincerity don’t translate and autocorrect ruins everything, but I believe our communication issues run much deeper.

Recently the failure to effectively communicate caused several problems and colossal misunderstandings in my life with certain individuals, especially with a dear friend. I believe if we had effectively communicated — about my own failed relationship and the feelings of betrayal, heartbreak, anger and loss of self-worth I had, and why I really felt uneasy about the new relationship she was in at the time — we probably could have worked through our conflict better than we have and our friendship could be in better shape than it currently is.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Often we think our point has been clearly understood. I now think this is rarely the case. Our passive aggressive or snide comments are not effective communication. Getting out our frustration and thinking we have nothing to apologize for is not effective communication. Purely telling someone what they have done to us is not effective communication.

They have a point of view too. We end up talking at each other, each believing we are right and the other is wrong — black and white lines of blame to place on the other. We need to understand we all perceive the world differently, and we have to communicate in ways others can understand what we are feeling and why we are feeling it.

We need to be honest in our communication; and we need to start with ourselves. We love to lie to ourselves and deny our feelings. If we cannot admit to ourselves we are angry, frustrated, sad, lost or any range of human emotion, how do we expect others to understand us? We have to be honest with ourselves to be honest with those around us.

We simply need to close our mouths and listen. I don’t mean hear their words anticipating how to respond and counter, or how to “one up” them. I mean actively listen to what they are conveying to you. Let them speak. You don’t have to respond immediately. Take a moment, digest their words and truly understand; let the silence hang between you. One of the greatest things we have to offer is our attention. Sometimes silence can convey the understanding and empathy we cannot find words for. We need to better learn the art of listening, and not just hearing.

We need to empathize. This month a close friend of mine told me she and her husband are expecting their first baby, and there are few times I’ve been more elated for someone else in my life. Not only was that moment in our friendship more memorable, it made her happier how excited I was. As I walked home (with a huge smile on my face I couldn’t get rid of for hours) I realized the pure joy I had by being happy for her. Communication is also sharing others’ emotions. Crying when they cry; laughing when they laugh.

There is one last component of communication I think is overlooked: forgiveness. Humbling ourselves by asking for it, swallowing our pride by giving it and freeing ourselves by accepting it. Often times “I’m sorry” isn’t sincere, we say it just to smooth things over, or it isn’t enough. Nothing says “I’m sorry” more than than saying, “I was wrong. Please forgive me.” Admitting I was wrong shows the sincerity of my apology. Pride however, often keeps us from forgiving others. We can’t let go of the hurt or resentment we have, and it’s detrimental to our relationships. Sometimes pride makes us forget we love that person and the positive influence they’ve had in our life. And at the end of the day, we have to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, stop punishing ourselves and accept the love and forgiveness others are trying to give us.

How we communicate with ourselves and those around us can determine the quality of the life we lead.

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