Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
May 2016 - Volume 16, No. 5
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Sorry to Interrupt, but I’m not Listening

Many of my readers and clients know I attribute almost magical powers to the phenomenon of human communication. It is a near universal healer for couples, families, enemies and friends. It is called the art of dialogue - two people talking to each other. The primary structure of such communication involves speaking and listening, and in such a manner assumes and increases respect for each other.

The Dialogue of the Deaf

However, what I often hear is a ‘discussion’ in which one or both parties are unresponsive to what the other is saying. It can be that each is so anxious to tell their story, or to counter the story of their partner, that they don’t listen. Don’t want to, or are incapable.

And one sure clue is that one or both will constantly interrupt each other.  It’s as if he who speaks most, wins.

The Anatomy of Interruption

Here’s what happens: 

When one speaks, the other picks up just a few minimal cues of what’s being said, then “goes inside” to prepare a response, frequently a rebuttal.  Once one “goes inside,” all effective listening stops.  The other may become aware of this, and in an attempt to be heard, may raise his or her voice or tone.  

Then the argument can shift to whether or not a voice was ‘raised’ or not. It’s not uncommon then for one to complain about the raised voice, while the other denies it. Any original conversation is sufficiently sidelined so that the ‘new’ conversation is solely about the volume and tone of the other.

When this happens in my office, I may step in with some external data such as “Actually there was a shift in volume” or “The volume didn’t change much, but the tone of what you said did.”  Often neither hears me either.  Either way, any real conversation is virtually obliterated. The data is now all subjective, and blame can now run the show.  It may be called conversation, but true listening is absent. We all know a “shouting match” doesn’t actually have to involve any increase in volume - independent of subjective experience. What is experienced is a tone or attitude that clearly means “not listening” or “you are wrong.” This is where the word “scolding” often fits.  There is a verbal exchange of words, but no conversation. Again, the ‘dialogue of the deaf.’

Healthy Conversation

As I’ve noted earlier, true conversation involves speaking and listening, and in such a manner that each has at least some respect for the other. 

Conversation can involve risk. One source suggests that the secret of successful marital conversation is to always be willing to “give an inch.”  I’m not always comfortable with the term compromise, because it often assumes losing something. However one classic military strategy is the willingness to lose a battle in order to win the war.  

In healthy conversation, at least one party is willing to have enough respect for the other to continually invite cooperation, to maintain an openness to listen to the other.  There are times when this is one-sided, and it takes a lot of patience - but that “give an inch” can have magical powers.

I know many client situations, where after weeks or even months of counseling and coaching, all at once I hear “we finally began to really talk” to each other.  Really talking means true speaking and listening has begun to take place.

Every time you speak with another, be willing to broaden or even change your mind.

It can be difficult, and you’ll often feel afraid you’ll lose some vital advantage. But remember, a general who insists he must win each battle, is fated to lose the war. I’ve seen it many times.  

Healthy conversation is meant to expand and enhance each party. Remember that. It’s an invitation to healing in our relationships. It also can have a divine element - it’s the essence of prayer.

It’s here we are most wonderfully human. I’ve heard that if angels could be jealous of us, this is one of those places. 

May you each have great conversation in your life.  Then, 

Pay attention.

Comments (3)

  • Really good advice. For some people (me) it is advice that couldn’t be understood without learning the hard way. Sometimes a relationship is such that one or both sides doesn’t feel secure enough to give over that “vital advantage” you speak of. True communication in that circumstance is then a real act of courage.

    — Ken M., 5/5/2016
  • "Jude"

    I like your advice. In saying prayers....the answer back to me was: “Don't retaliate.” (or get even)...I learned from ALANON that I wasted a lot of energy that could be used for other (ways to use my talents.) So even though my partner might be dead wrong. (I don’t give advice or correct or try to change him.) He might say “no” to things I suggest......and then I won’t fight that either......and he will change his mind later.

    I really focus on Jesus (when I’m really upset) and think about what He would do. I love Isaiah 54: vs. 9 and will trade in my garment of “sorrow” to one of Praise. I know who my Bridegroom is.....! and if I’m in pain....I lift it up (back to Jesus.....) and say...o.k. it is. ( U can have this suffering back to use for “poor sinners” Mother Angelica’s motto. Growing old together is a challenge.!! I try not to take it too seriously.

    — Judith Fisher, 5/5/2016
  • Acknowledging your truth

    In conversation, if it is to be mutually rewarding, it’s best to start out on even footing. There have been different kinds of people in my life who acknowledge me as an equal (as an adult of course) and others who insist on keeping a ‘higher ground’. Many of us have different ‘hats’ we have to wear and become during our day: parent, spouse, employee, employee, boss or peon. In all of those roles I find it helpful to speak from my heart and listen what the other ‘means’ not necessarily says. So often dialogue can take an unexpected twist and become a power struggle.

    In that case conversation isn’t productive (most often damaging), Pulling back a safe space when pride, anger, resentment or even a lack of all of the information is like getting out of a nose dive, while one insists on being right but does nothing about using safety measures to keep a conversation ‘flying right’.

    In my experience good conversation,;listening and rewarding communication can be done when speaking from the heart. When that breaks down, that simple, most rewarding element, it’s hard to be a sincerely good listener and help promote communication in conversation,

    — Liza, 5/6/2016

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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