Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

The Key to Effective Communication—Shut Up

The art of listening.

Communication is not a skill to be learned, but an art to be cultivated. Effective communication compasses Miles Davis’ famous sentiment that ‘music is the space between the notes.’ It’s not so much the sound that matters, but the silence.

It’s often said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are right, and those who are right. In other words, everyone has an opinion. Given the opportunity, there are very few of us who would hesitate to throw in our two cents. But imposing ourselves in this way is more an exercise in ego than anything else, and that imposition of ego not only limits us, but deflects the opportunity for authentic transaction.

Here’s a simple exercise: when you need to interact with another person do you ask to ‘speak to them’ or ‘speak with them?’ This subtle shift in perspective can markedly change the quality of that interaction. It moves the interchange from one of control to one of collaboration. This is not unlike substituting the word ‘and’ for ‘but’, which changes an implied negative into an opportunity to see other potentials in a situation or circumstance.

Speaking ‘with’, however, demands space, and that is where listening comes in. Listening is the means for creating that space, expanding the tone and texture of a conversation. It also gets us out of the way, which is important because within the context of authentic social interchange, it is often we who are the greatest obstacle.

Another aspect of listening is asking questions. Very often we fail to ask simple questions and leave others feeling like they are not being heard. Not asking questions is very much like imposing ourselves because we are being presumptive about another person’s needs or wishes, rather than making an effort to establish them as they really are.

Lastly, we need to hear the other person. This is something that is both symbolic and concrete. We do need to hold space, hold our tongue and genuinely listen, but we also need to suspend our need to impose ourselves so the other person has the space to interject their needs in a tangible way. If, then, the person with whom we are speaking is also listening, an authentic interchange ensues.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Well, that’s easy—it’s just common sense.” Is it, though? Try a little exercise in introspective self-control. How long can you be still without interjecting yourself into someone else’s discourse? When someone is speaking with you, where are you in the conversation?--have you already formed an opinion with which you are just waiting to intercede, or are you actually listening and considering the other person’s position---even if you don’t agree with it—wholeheartedly. Not as easy as you might first believe and, in a world where we generally answer a text within three seconds and an email in eight, something that takes a fair amount of practice.

© 2012 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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