Listen! Conversation through the Looking Glass

Originally published in The Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch, 2016.

At an early age, we learn to speak. Shouldn’t it be a little easier to communicate with people, then? To some it seems so natural. Others never seem to get there. Why does this happen? Communication is a skill. Conflict management is a skill. As we consider what to do when it’s time to use our words we start first with our perspective.

Last time we discussed four levels of communication: the Superficial; People Places and Things; What I Value, and How Things Affect Me. One person asks a Level 4 question, the other responds with Level 2 answers. Or the listener’s nonverbal communication sends mixed signals. “Of course, I care about you!” she yells, then storms out of the room. So Step 1: identify the level of the conversation. Go deeper as necessary. Refrain from depth if the speaker will not value your vulnerability.

And when we do communicate something personal, every message we share begins interiorly, in the head or heart. It is filtered through the lens of one’s perspective and beliefs. I could have a pessimistic belief about the person (“this person is a jerk”), about people in general (“it’s practically impossible to trust anyone”), or about myself (“I’m not worth listening to”). Once passed through the lens, the message is translated to words and gestures (nonverbal communication). I may have a particular tone if I’m untrusting. I may present as unsure about my message if I doubt my ability.

Next the listener hears the message. Filtered through her perspective/belief lens, she interprets and reacts. “She is just attacking me,” or “why should I apologize?” or “this person is incompetent.” Once filtered, the message takes root in the listener’s mind. It is understood on her terms.

Being a “good listener” means awareness of your lens and the lens of the other person. It requires knowledge and thoughtfulness. First, I hold the message, listening and attending to the words in use. Before I jump to interpretation, I ask myself, “what is he really saying?” From past experiences I gain knowledge to help me better understand. “He needs to rant a little before he can calm down enough to get to the point,” or “she needs to process out loud to solve her problem.” Understanding diminishes my defensiveness. Step two: Consider what you know about your lens and the lens of the other on the given topic.

Bernard Guerney, creator of Relationship Enhancement Therapy tell us, in times of conflict, rather than focusing on what I will say next, it’s best to become the Empathizer. My sole focus is to help the Expressor (the person speaking) feel heard and understood. Impossible to do? There is so much I have wanted to say for such a long time. I’m too worked up to listen carefully. Everything he says puts me on edge.

I remind myself, if my conversational partner feels heard, he or she will be more open to what I have to say. If I’m too upset, I ask to take a break. We negotiate a good, specific time to return to the conversation. We must wait at least twenty minutes. It takes as long, if not longer for us to physically calm down from the distress.

Can’t stop feeling defensive? If I have loved and respected this person in the past, I should try to remember what it was like to feel those feelings. This is the same person, no matter what has changed. Is the conflict worth getting over? Is there some benefit to staying together? Respecting the person I’m speaking with means valuing what she feels or thinks. So I will not rush. I will listen. Step Three: Find a time when both can share and be heard.

Next week we’ll talk about what to do when you come back from that break and feel ready to fill your role as the Empathizer.

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