One day, when my nephew was a little boy, I was tickling him.
When I did not stop immediately upon his request, he looked at me and said, “Aunt Wendy, stop means stop.”
He schooled me. I have not made this particular mistake with him again—especially as now, at 14 years old, he towers over me.
I think about this when I ponder how often we say what we mean, but it gets overlooked or lost in the shuffle of a conversation or life’s daily tasks. I have realized that important life conversations often occur in the almost nonexistent pause of other activities. While we certainly all have moments when we say, “Honey, can we sit down and discuss this?” in my life, it seems that the critical moments and key conversations occur as I am rushing out of the door, cooking something complicated, or preoccupied with my smartphone or tablet.
Layered on top of this is the realization—as with my nephew—that sometimes, even when someone says exactly what they mean, it is quite easy not to recognize its full weight or importance.
What feels like a throwaway line, or an aside, is often the key to a deep and meaningful conversation if we could just recognize it. When I say, “I’m going to get my hair cut,” I can’t expect you to know that it’s my first haircut since I lost all of my hair in cancer treatment, and it feels like a really big deal. When you say, “Sorry, I’m crabby. I have cramps,” I have no idea you were hoping that this time, finally, you were pregnant.
Listening is certainly about using our ears to hear and our eyes to read facial expressions (or these days, emojis), but it is also about using our hearts. Each and every day, so much information comes at us from so many different angles that it can feel overwhelming and exhausting. It can also be an easy, ready excuse for not responding heart-full-y.
I’m not suggesting that every email promising perfectly white teeth or millions of dollars from a prince requires heartfelt listening, but I am suggesting that if we choose to listen heartfully, we can communicate more effectively and efficiently. In listening heartfully, we will free up the time to have those very heartfelt conversations and connections we crave.
Here are five tips for listening from the heart:
1. Look at or imagine a picture. If it’s a remote communication (email, phone, text, social media) with someone you like, take a moment to imagine their face before responding. Feel in your heart your affection for the person. If it is someone you don’t like or don’t know, take a moment to imagine your favorite place in nature, a favorite pet, or your favorite person. Take a deep breath, hold the image in your head, and feel gratitude and appreciation for it deep in your heart. As you are preparing to call, email, text, or tweet, look at the picture you have chosen to be the wallpaper on your phone or the background on your computer. Feel it with your heart—and then, proceed with the communication.
2. Feel it. If it is a conversation with a loved one (or even a deeply liked one), as you are listening, engage your heart, even as you listen with your head and ears. Even if it takes a moment, remember all that is good about this person and all of the gratitude that you have for them. Then listen to their words.
3. Take your time. Often in conversation, we lose the essence of what is being said because we are trying to formulate our own responses or determine what we think. It is actually okay to listen, pause, and think about it—and then respond. If that silence feels uncomfortable, a good strategy can be to mirror back what you just heard the person say. This doesn’t mean parroting word for word, but it means checking in to ensure that we understand the essence of what our friend or loved one is saying before responding. I am often amazed at how quickly a conversation can either spiral out of control or go down an unexpected and unhelpful rabbit hole. Upon stopping to investigate further, it turns out that the conversation went off the rails in one of the first two sentences based on a simple misunderstanding.
4. Manage your communications. To be able to communicate successfully, it is necessary to pare down or weed out unnecessary white noise. This can be as simple as unsubscribing from unwanted emails or as challenging as ending a friendship or relationship that no longer serves. It can also be less about changing the number of communications and more about managing when they occur, choosing a time when you will check emails or social media, recognizing that it is not necessary to respond to a text immediately (really, it’s true!), or deciding when it is the optimal time to make a phone call or engage in a conversation with a loved one.
5. Just say no. Sometimes it may be that we can’t listen from the heart. Sometimes, too much is going on—we are wrapped up in our own thoughts, or we are overtired, undernourished, or something else. If that’s the case, take a deep breath, and kindly and gently ask if the conversation can be postponed to a better time.
Start easy. Pick one or two people who you care deeply about, and try paying attention with your heart in a conversation by using the techniques above. If it is effective for you, expand out. In listening from the heart, you may experience the added benefit of managing communications more effectively, feeling more peaceful and calm, and finding yourself better able to manage the ebbs, flows, and stresses of daily life.
I would love to hear about how it works for you.
Author: Wendy Kuhn
Image: Flickr/Rick&Brenda Beerhorst
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina