We teach courses all over the world and have discovered that whatever the culture, whatever the language, people often don’t really, truly listen. Listening is usually perceived as a passive act, but we have discovered that when “true listening” is present, satisfying communication is sure to follow. This is devoted to the art of listening. If you discover those things that keep you from listening, you will simultaneously discover many of the things that get in your way in relationships and in day-to-day interactions. If you learn the art of
listening, you will become more effective, productive, and satisfied in all aspects of your life.
True listening is not something that we have been taught growing up in our families, amongst our friends, or in school.
True listening requires being in the moment. It also requires letting go of your point of view, your thoughts, and your agendas. True listening is an art.
Have you ever examined whether or not you are truly listening? Have you identified what inhibits your ability to actually hear what another person is saying with the intention of seeing what he or she means from his or her point of view? What we are talking about here is a self-education program.
First you must have the desire to discover how you listen and interact with your life from a nonjudgmental point of view. It is not about trying to change or fix what you notice in the self-examination of your behavioral patterns. If you just notice how you are relating to your life, that in itself is enough to complete previously
disturbing patterns of behavior. Frequently, no other actions are needed.
This also applies to the way in which you listen, don’t listen, or distract yourself from listening.
If a person doesn’t feel heard, then frustration builds and misunderstandings are sure to happen. It requires a degree of openness, however, to actually hear what is being said. There are impediments to truly listening to your partner. People frequently are not open to hear simply because they are already involved in a thought or an action. But as we have seen with the Second Principle of Instantaneous Transformation, we can do only one thing at a time if we expect to do it well. Making sure you have your partner’s attention is the best way
to start when you are saying something of importance.
If your partner says, “I really enjoy taking cold showers,” and you think this point of view is stupid, you will disagree and comment in your head rather than just hear what he or she is saying from his or her point of view. Often, many of us are so fearful of being manipulated into doing something we don’t want to do, that we resist hearing for fear it will be another request put upon us that we don’t want to fulfill.
PREOCCUPATION WITH A PROBLEM
If you are preoccupied with a thought or something you consider problematic, then you can’t truly listen because your mind can hold only one thing at a time. If you are worrying about something, then you won’t hear what is being said to you.
FILLING IN THE BLANKS
As we discussed in earlier chapters, our minds are like computers and they can only operate with what they already know. For instance, if you hear a word that you don’t already have in your mental data bank, you are likely to fill in the blank with one your logic system assumes is the same or a reasonable facsimile.
FILLING IN WITH WHAT YOU EXPECT
When you are in a relationship with someone, after a period of time, you believe that you know this person and, by extension, what he or she is going to say before it’s said. When the first few words come out, you assume you know where the sentence or story is going. So your mind fills in the blanks with what you
expect to hear, and you stop listening to what your partner is actually saying. You may be right most of the time. But there are times when your partner is going to say something else, and you are not receptive because you already have the ball in your mitt. Or you may not even hear what is being said because you
think you know it already and have moved on in your thoughts. If so, chances are your partner will feel disregarded.
PROVING YOURSELF RIGHT
At this point, we must talk again about the Second Principle of Instantaneous Transformation: no two things can occupy the same space at the same time. If your mind is already busy with what you intend to say when you get your chance, then you can’t possibly hear what is being said to you. And that is on the most
basic level. If you are mentally defending your point of view— often completely unaware that this is what you are doing—then you won’t want to hear what is being said, as in Roger’s example of wanting to be paid his 6 percent right away. When you are defending yourself, your mind will manipulate what is being said so that you can disagree, prove it wrong, and prove yourself or your point of view right.
Have you ever found yourself finding fault with your partner’s use of words or a particular word rather than
allowing yourself to hear the essence of what he or she is saying? Frequently, when people engage in conversation, they are trying to prove that what they believe to be true is true. So when we listen to each other, we are still holding on to our point of view.
THE CULTURAL INFLUENCES OF LISTENING
One day, while walking down the street on the Italian Riviera, we saw a three- or four-year-old girl having a conversation with her father. What impressed us most was how she expressed herself with her hands. The cultural way of gesturing in that region is to wave one’s hand emphatically as an extension of the words. The girl demonstrated a smaller version of the gestures going on all around her. She didn’t think about learning
this way of communicating, it was absorbed along with the culture.
You have also absorbed culturally influenced ways of relating, which include not wanting to appear stupid, wanting to be right, and trying to look good. These ways of relating have become filters through which you listen. So listening is not simply an act of hearing what someone else has to say. Each communication goes through a quick check to see how it might affect your agenda to get ahead, be smart, or look good.
LISTENING WITH AN AGENDA
A major inhibitor to listening is your agenda. Wanting something when you talk with another person is not a problem—if you are aware of it. For instance, if you are a salesperson who gets paid a commission on items sold, you obviously want potential customers to purchase something. However, if you push to meet your agenda rather than paying attention to your customers’ needs, you are sure to turn people off and lose sales.
In effect, going for your agenda often produces the opposite of the desired result. This holds true for personal relationships as well.
Please don’t misunderstand. There is nothing wrong with having an agenda. If you want a better relationship or more intimacy, for example, that is not a problem. The problem arises when you are unaware of your agendas and are mechanically driven to fulfill them. If you are aware of the things you want (or don’t want), then you can hold these preferences in abeyance and actively listen to what your partner has to say.
BREATHING REALLY HELPS
Sometimes you just have to take a nice, deep breath and tell yourself that what your partner has to say isn’t going to hurt. It helps to take a deep breath, relax a little, and listen without defending yourself. The ability to listen without defending is a very powerful tool, but it takes self-discipline to allow yourself to actually hear what your partner is saying without protecting yourself or trying to prove that your point of view is right.
COMPASSION, COMPASSION, COMPASSION
If your partner is telling you about something you did or didn’t do that upset him or her, if you realize that you couldn’t have done it any differently than you did, it is possible for you to have compassion for yourself. And when we say compassion for yourself we are talking about a state of grace, of self- forgiveness.
Most of us have the mistaken opinion that we could have lived our lives differently than we did, but if you look back, you will see that everything you did in your life was perfect as it was, has led you to this present moment, and brought you to where you are now. Though you may think in retrospect that you could
have done things another way, when you were actually living through those circumstances, you did only what you could do at the time. You couldn’t have done it any differently in reality.
To make this point clearer, let’s go back to the camera analogy. If we were to take a picture of you
sitting down and smiling, in the same instant that the camera’s shutter opened and closed, could you have been standing and frowning? Of course not. Well, two seconds before we took the picture, could you have been different than you were in that moment? The only answer we can come up with is no. Using this camera analogy, if you tease it back in time, you can see how everything that has happened in your life could have happened only the way it did and not the way you think it ought to have happened. This opens the door for the possibility of compassion—compassion for yourself and for others.
In philosophy, there is the concept of determinism versus free will. Determinism means that your life is predestined, and you really don’t have a choice in the way things are. Free will implies that you have total choice in the way things are. What we are saying is that you have no choice in the way things were. You may think that the way things were should have or could have been different, but the reality is that you have no choice now. Things were the way they were. You may have a choice in how things turn out in the future, but the past is already written and you couldn’t have done anything differently than the way you did.
The only thing useful about thinking you could have done things differently is if you want to use the past to torment yourself. We have found that tormenting yourself does not produce great relationships, so we suggest that you don’t do this.
REINTERPRETING THE PAST
Even if you accept our premise that “what’s done is done,” the past is still open to interpretation. Dwelling on the past is how many torment themselves, thereby fettering their ability to create magical relationships.
And so the story goes. You can reinterpret any event in your life to fit your current outlook or agenda. The truth is what happened has happened, and if you see it and let it be, then you can get on with your life. “What?” you might say. “Don’t I need to make myself remember and punish myself for wrongdoings so
that I will never do them again?” No, you don’t. If you see something you did or said in error and actually see it without judging yourself, then you have already learned your lesson. Punishing yourself and feeling bad does not help. If you have truly seen the error of your ways, you never have to repeat it.
THE POWER OF SINCERELY APOLOGIZING—AND OF TRULY ACCEPTING AN APOLOGY
It doesn’t matter how well you communicate, how sensitive you are, how in love and perfectly matched you are with your partner, sooner or later you will do something that blows it. When that happens, there is actually a magic wand that can dissolve the hurt and restore your relationship. As mentioned in the sex and intimacy, a sincere apology can mend a world of hurts. There are some tricks to having an apology work and also ways of ensuring that when you do say you’re sorry, it will not inflame the situation more.
If you apologize, really mean it. There is nothing more maddening than having someone say he or she is sorry just to placate you when the person really still thinks his or her actions were right. Here is an example. Try saying these words out loud and see which feels better: “I am sorry if I hurt your feelings,” or “I am sorry for hurting your feelings.”
At the same time, if your partner sincerely apologizes, you must be prepared to accept it. By the time he or she finally “admits” the wrongdoing, you may have a backlog of examples of how he or she did the same thing on other occasions. Rubbing a person’s nose in it will only reignite the fight and certainly will not make it easy for your partner to apologize again in the future. If you are punished for being truthful, you are much less likely to be honest.
It may be true, in a bigger sense, that what you do does not hurt, disturb, or upset your partner, but on a day-to-day level, there is plenty you can do that can have damaging effects. Saying you are sorry—and meaning it—only hurts your ego, but it can rebuild the bridge between you and another person. Then you can experience being in love long after the rose of the first attraction blooms and fades.
PUSHING CAN CAUSE A BACKLASH
Oftentimes in a relationship, one or the other of the partners sees something he or she would like to fix in the other. Sometimes it is an annoying habit, but frequently the difficulty arises when your partner is in pain and you can’t seem to help him or her. Pushing your partner, even for his or her “own good” can cause a backlash of resistance. Of course, resistance energizes the First Principle again: what you resist persists and grows stronger.
This interaction taught us a valuable lesson that has supported us in working with people. We have discovered that if people truly want to free themselves from the confining nature of self-defeating habits, negative personal history, and the story of their lives, we can assist them in doing that. If, however,
people say they want to be free of the limitations that have followed them through life but are actually comfortable in their cages and are unwilling to give that up, then reaching in to take them out becomes a violent act. And they will fi ght to defend their right to stay in their cages, immersed in the reasons for
their inability to be happy and healthy and live in a state of well-being.
We don’t mean to give the impression that you shouldn’t be willing to give your partner a helping hand. What we are suggesting is that sometimes people say they want help but really don’t. We have learned to respect a person’s right to stay in his or her cage. It has been our experience that if we exercise patience and keep pointing to the door, then anyone who truly wants to be free will find his or her own way out.
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