“Conversation was never begun at once, or in a hurried manner. No one was quick with a question, no matter how important, and no one was pressed for answer. A pause giving time for thought was the truly courteous way of beginning and conducting a conversation. Silence was meaningful with the Lakota, and his granting a space of silence to the speechmaker and his own moment of silence before talking was done in the practice of true politeness and regard for the rule that ‘thought comes before speech’.”
Those were the words of Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939), Oglala Sioux chief.
I remembered the chief’s words recently, probably because I have tried to pay more attention to the way I listen and talk to people. It’s the training that I’m going through that has brought about this focus. (I’ll talk more about it in some later post.)
Luther Standing Bear’s brief account gives us a glimpse to a world that feels very distant to our present reality. The contrast is actually quite staggering. It makes me think about the paradox that our whole modern world is evolved around communication – and still it often seems that there is less and less genuine connection between people, less true listening and less open talking.
Because I think you know what I mean I’ll give only a few examples:
- We don’t have patience to wait till the other person has finished talking. Instead we interrupt them to let them hear our reply.
- We tend to speak loud and fast.
- We don’t even try to understand the other person while listening to them.
- When meeting each other in groups we don’t bother to create a true connection between people; instead we tend to focus on speaking in a way that shows how smart and witty we are.
- Even with our closest friends our conversations may completely wander off from the point. For example: your call a friend to talk about a specific problem, but your friend uses it as an excuse to start talking about their own issue, instead of trying to understand you.
- Conversations and interaction in families… I think we all know how easy it is to misunderstand and to be misunderstood.
The various dimensions of speaking and listening
“Be careful when speaking. You create the world around you with your words.” That’s a saying of the Navajos.
Speaking and listening – we take them for granted, but they aren’t that simple. They are skills that are deeply interwoven. They are multidimensional and paradoxical phenomena. Why?
Because speaking implies also listening to my inner self. Am I honest? What am I feeling? Do I talk from my heart?
Because listening means also listening to myself as I listen to others. That is, it means being aware of my own reactions. Awareness of myself during the process of listening helps to keep my little ego out of the way.
Then there is of course that inner talk that goes on incessantly in our heads. Are we able to hear what it really says? For example, is there a judge or a critic talking to you, if you have been less than perfect? Or are you sometimes lucky and hear a voice of self-empathy and self-forgiveness?
At its best, listening to another person can resemble those forms of meditation in which we use a specific focus. In deep listening that focus is the other person.
A new approach
Let me tell you about an episode of my life that is related to listening and talking.
My husband and I had a little disagreement a few weeks ago. The cause of our dispute was not really very dramatic or big. But it had to do with my weekend routines and my longing for greater freedom and flexibility – so we ended up having a very heated conversation.
I had to call a time out. I went alone to town and found a cosy cafe where I spent an hour or so. I ordered a cup of cappuccino and three quite expensive Belgian chocolates. One was not enough.
Then I finished the book that I had been reading: The Surprising Purpose of Anger by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
After finishing my cappuccino, chocolates, and the book about anger I was not so angry any more. I decided to try a new approach.
So I went back home and suggested to my husband something that I’ve learned recently – a bit different way of talking and listening.
We agreed on the following rules before we started:
- We both use at least 15-20 minutes to tell each other what is going on inside ourselves at the moment.
- The one who talks should only focus in their own feelings, thoughts, and sensations in the present moment. Commenting, interpreting, or blaming the other person was not allowed.
- The one who listens, listens in silence. To nod, to say “hmm” or “yes” was allowed, for the speaker to feel that their words are heard.
- After the person has spoken, the listener rephrases what he or she has just heard. This must happen again without commenting, interpreting or judging.
Looking in the same direction
As we are an old couple – we’ve been married for 25 years and known each other even longer – we no longer enjoy wasting energy in sulking at each other. We both believe that deep in our hearts we always have good intentions toward each other, even if the situation sometimes should prove the opposite.
So my husband starting talking and I listened.
While we spoke we didn’t look at each other. I’ve noticed it’s sometimes easier that way, particularly if you’re very close to someone, and if you feel very hurt.
My advice for similar situations: Look in the same direction but not at each other! (You may want to try talking in the car.)
So I looked at the painting on the wall (the one you see in the picture). It represents an African landscape, and I really love its colors and spaciousness. That moment it also helped me to stay a bit more detached.
– Well? Did the approach work?
I was reminded of the fact that I share my life with another human being, not just with a “husband” or “father” of our daughter. I had a glimpse into this man’s soul, and into his fragility.
In everyday life it is so easy to forget the preciousness of the other person. Listening silently to my husband revived my love for him. It helped me to honour the life that is present in him.
And he, for his part, told me that now he really understands the importance of my request, and that he finds it very reasonable and understandable.
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More paintings by my friend Hannes can be seen here.