“The first duty of love is to listen.”—Paul Tillich
How engaged are you in your relationships? Are you present within the relationship? I don’t mean physically present since that is a given. I’m talking about being mentally, emotionally and spiritually invested in the relationship. To be devoted means enduring the difficult periods if the relationship runs into rough waters. I’m defining relationships here as all forms of human connections whether they be intimate, friends, family or work colleagues. Now you might think: “Tony, I can’t be overly engaged with my boss because I would cross the line of being their friend.” So allow me to explain myself. By being engaged and present means we bring our whole self to our encounters with others. For example, it is my experience as a coach that many people are ineffective listeners. They listen intending to chime in once the other person is finished. They are not taking part in communication and it is evident in their body language. Contemplate this for a moment, do you consider yourself to be a good listener in your relationships? Do you listen intently to what others are saying or do you skim over the surface of their words?
The theme of this article is inspired by a recent conversation with a client experiencing communication challenges with her boss. She mentioned the difficulty of sustaining a mutual understanding with her boss because of his intolerance to what she has to say. She recalled a recent experience that was met with disdain and indifference. The boss was certain they were listening by repeating “yep” throughout the conversation. From my client’s perspective, however, they were indifferent to her communication. Listening requires being silent until the other person finishes their dialogue. You might even ask them: “Is there anything else you want to tell me about this situation?” In this manner, you create an open dialogue with the other party instead of pretending you are interested. I know of a family member who continually interrupts me by asking questions while I am explaining a story. I find it disconcerting because if they actively listen, I will tell them what they need to know within the context of the story. If I have not explained myself well enough, they are at right to ask questions once I have finished. Do you agree with these sentiments? What is your experience with poor listeners?
“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard—they must be felt with the heart.”—Helen Keller
Listening is one facet of how we engage in our relationships. Other ways include compassion, kindness and creating an atmosphere of presence with the other person. So if your significant other comes home and tells you about their problems at work, rather than try to fix it, listen without prejudice. Listen with an open mind and a compassionate heart, knowing they are coming to you because they feel safe sharing their vulnerabilities. Unless they ask for help, actively listen and give them the gift of your presence. Sure, I understand we want to fix the other person’s problem but often our advice may be unqualified or unnecessary. What it requires is empathy, presence, and nonjudgement. Have you experienced this with your intimate relationships where you wanted your partner to just listen to you? Sometimes it’s difficult and we retaliate in anger because we don’t want someone to fix our problems, we want to be heard.
Who said relationships were easy? They are not meant to be easy, however, they are worth it even when the other person pushes our pain buttons. We experience growth at those times because it forces us to look into ourselves even during conflicts. The importance of being engaged and present within our relationships means fostering true communication. We let go of judgment and fixed ideas of what we think the other person is really saying. There is the opportunity to heal our childhood wounds when we listen openly because we allow our ego to take a back seat. Ego wants to be heard while the heart prefers to listen. Listening is difficult because it involves silence and thoughtful reflection while the other person is talking. Moreover, not all problems need to be solved. When we try to solve other people’s problems we take away their ability to overcome their challenges. We disempower them and strip them of their identity. What we ought to do is listen and ask encouraging questions so they arrive at the answers themselves.
Are you seeing that being engaged and present in your relationships involves more than your physical presence? It means bringing your authentic self to each interaction and letting go of judgment, blame, and anger. I’m not suggesting it is simple but if we consider why we are in the relationship in the first place, we learn to see past these disingenuous emotions and truly connect with our core feelings. With this in mind, I’d like you to pick a relationship you feel is strained at the moment. It might be a co-worker, a friend, a family member or a significant other. In the next seven days, make an agreement with yourself to actively listen to what the other person is saying. Listen with the intent to connect with their words and emotions instead of skimming over the surface of the communication. Try to get a sense of what they want you to know about the situation. Are they afraid? Are they feeling vulnerable? Or angry? If so, perhaps they need unconditional love? Are you willing to give it to them without saying a word? Maybe they want you to see them through the eyes of love, even when they experience negative emotions. The true test comes when we are engaged and present in all our relationships without the need to say a lot.