Listening: the Key to Connection

Recently I had surgery to remove a cataract from my right eye.  Despite feeling some jitters ahead of time, everything went smoothly.  My ophthalmologist and her staff had explained all the details, and I prepared for the procedure as instructed. Now while my eye heals, I am waiting to have the left eye done in a few weeks.

I’m fortunate in that I have not needed surgery for many years, and was struck by the developments in technology. When I walked into the OR, being in a Star Trek episode came to mind. The smooth and quick procedure reinforced that impression.

Several days later an acquaintance asked me how I was feeling. I opened my mouth to reply, and was startled by her saying, “You probably feel like…” and then went on at great length to tell me about her cataract surgery experience. Without missing a beat, she went on, not seeming to notice that I just nodded and smiled and had never responded to her question before she turned and addressed someone else.

I hadn’t really had a chance to respond. And more to the point, it seemed obvious to me that she wasn’t really interested.

This incident came to mind later when writing a report about building better relationships.  Often when someone tells me that a relationship fell apart because they “can’t communicate,” that may cover a lot of different meanings.

But I suspect from working with couples, that most often it means that someone, and often no one, is really listening.

The power of effective listening cannot be overestimated.

 “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
Henri J.M. NouwenThe Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey


Most of us have been guilty of poor listening at some point. You know what I mean; you may see the other person’s lips moving, but you are busy thinking about what you want to say when they stop. Or you’re thinking about what great points or interesting experiences you have been reminded of. Or you have a funny story to tell. Or you can’t wait to tell them how right you are about an argument you are making. Or you’re bored or preoccupied and your mind is wandering and you really don’t have the faintest idea what they are talking about.

Being on the receiving end of that inattention doesn’t feel good.  Whether you intend it or not, what you are really communicating is that you don’t care about the other guy.  You are saying that she/he is unimportant to you. It can be the death knell of a relationship because you have failed to make the connection.

To help you succeed with learning better listening skills and in the process, improve relationships, I would suggest a few simple steps:

  • Maintain good eye contact with the speaker. You don’t have to stare, but look frequently and directly into their eyes.
  • Take care to reflect the expression and body language of the speaker.  Our body language needs to match up with the emotional tone of the conversation.
  • After the person pauses, reflect back to them what you hear them saying. Ask a question to make sure that you are picking up both the meaning of their words as well as their emotional experience.
  • Stay with them without changing the subject until they have finished talking.
  • Avoid the temptation to give advice, fix things, come up with solutions, etc. This is not always easy, especially when you have been reared to be a problem solver or healer. It is not always easy to just “be” with someone who is in emotional pain. Remember this is not your problem to solve!

The greatest gift that we can offer anyone is to be fully present with them.  And the way that we demonstrate that we are, is by careful listening.  As Stephen Covey wrote, “When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it is like giving them emotional oxygen.”


A Map to Health And Success


“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
~Carl Jung~

We live in a world where our attention is always in demand.  My email program has ads running at the top, on the sides, some of them moving and some flashing.  We are constantly checking our phones, looking to see who is calling or texting.  Reading new email messages that come in, searching for directions or looking for bargains and making restaurant reservations.  We are reading books or playing Angry Birds, listening to music or processing some kind of information nearly constantly.

The images that flash past us are a more rapid version of images that we are very familiar with from the movies, television and magazines.  With them we begin to piece together the “ideal” life.  Pictures of what we are supposed to look like, feel like, and what our lifestyles should be.

It may be the woman in the pencil skirt and jacket, holding a briefcase, hailing a cab on a busy city street. Or a man leading a business meeting in a corporate board room.  Then an image of both of them, handsome and beautiful, with the requisite 2.5 children and the golden retriever, relaxing in their beautifully appointed home.

Most of us have a nagging sense of uneasiness when we look at them.  Even though we have bought into the underlying message and are busily buying the products that ostensibly got them this ideal life.

The goals you have set for your life may be possibly heavily influenced by these messages and pictures.  Your notion of success, in other words, may possibly be dictated by all those bits of information streaming through your day.  Are you fully conscious of them?  Do you stop to ask what values they express?  Have you ever turned everything off and sat in the silence by yourself?

For some that is an outlandish and frightening idea.  On those occasions when I suggest it, I often get a reply that “Someone may be trying to contact me!”  Yes, Someone is.  Mother Culture is whispering in your ear.

The problem is not that you want to be a success.  After all, my work has been dedicated to helping people build happier lives by removing the impediments of beliefs and behaviors which are blocking them.  I’m enthusiastically all for success!  But you cannot find the answers to that from your Blackberry or Madison Avenue.  It’s not possible to find the perfect man/ woman/ child/ career/ bank account/ social group/ Jimmy Choo shoes that will fix it for you.

What I would like to say is that what determines your success has to begin with a deep understanding of who you are.  And this is an ongoing process that will continue throughout your life span.  In other words, it is never completed.  Until your life on earth is completed, and who knows?  Maybe not even then.

As Carl Jung points out, we must look inward (search our hearts) to see enough to take the journey ahead.  We must discover what matters most to us, what our passions are, what our strengths and our weaknesses are.  How have we created the life we already have?  And that means being brave enough to tolerate being in the shadows, feeling scared, vulnerable and uncertain.

The ego loves being certain, right and righteous!  In some sense, it’s much easier to avoid the “abyss” and endlessly look to those people and things that “should” make us happy and feel safe.  And when they don’t, criticizing and blaming them and going off to look for the “right” person or the next thing.

That is how many live their lives.  And certainly they have a right to do that.  Personally, I believe that while they avoid the “abyss” by avoiding the hard questions and the silence and space that is required to hear answers, the mysteries still await them.  And they will bumble around, running into walls until they must stop because their energies or bodies are exhausted.

I would like to invite you to do the work that is at times daunting, but ultimately inspiring, energizing and meaningful.  There are resources, people, tools and signs along the road that will point the way.  And you can develop your innate intuition; learn to listen to that still, small, voice to design your own success and the life that you desire.


Complaint Free Living

“In reality of course, life rushes from within, not from without.” ~Willa Cather~

The other day I was listening to a couple who had come for help with their relationship.   Both of them were quite unhappy with each other and seemed stuck in negative habits of communication with each other.  This had been going on for so long they weren’t sure that they wanted to stay together.

What struck me about them was how locked into complaining they were!  They complained about each other, their badly behaved children, the school system which wasn’t doing right by their children, their parents and in-laws, and their demanding jobs.

The list of problems seemed endless, and instead of empathizing with each other, they seemed to be competing for who had it worse, and would end up in another argument.

I didn’t say this to them at the time, because I was pretty sure they weren’t ready to hear it, and I didn’t want to get into an argument with them.  :-)   But what if the problem isn’t the problem, but rather complaining about the problem causes the unhappiness?

Dr. Wayne Dyer teaches, “Never complain: never explain.”  Understanding the power of our thoughts begins with recognizing that what we often assume to be the truth of a situation or another person, or even ourselves, is just a thought.  Not the truth carved in stone, but just thoughts that can and do change.

For instance, a wife may be thinking, “I can’t stand how he never thinks to pick up his shoes after he takes them off.  He is such a slob!”  Repeated often enough, she begins to assume that her judgment is reality and gets more and more angry.

She thinks that his shoes in the living room and his obvious slob status is the problem, and in a misguided attempt to get him to change, she complains to herself, to him and then to anyone who will listen to her.

Our communications with each other are not only verbal; they are also occurring on an unconscious level. In other words, your unconscious mind is communicating with others’ unconscious minds all the time.  So even if the complaint is not made aloud, her husband is going to pick up on the gist of what his wife is thinking about him and will respond accordingly.

If she could recognize that her thoughts about him were what is making her so angry, could she think of something about him that she LIKES?  Is there anything that he does that is pleasing to her?  Does he make any positive contribution to the relationship, family or the world? Probably the answer is yes.  Is she noticing and appreciating any of those good qualities and contributions?

If she is hard pressed to come up with her own appreciation of him, there are surely others who like and appreciate him.  What would his best friend say about him?  Are there family members who love and admire him?  What qualities do they see in him that she is missing?

Just noticing this is helpful because it illustrates how our thoughts determine our feelings.  So when we change our thoughts, our feelings change as well.  When we shift our focus from the negative, irritating qualities in another person (as well as ourselves) to the positive ones, we begin to feel better.

In other words, when we quit complaining, and express appreciation instead, we immediately begin to feel happier.  And relationships can begin to reconnect and meet our emotional needs rather than getting stuck in negativity and unhappiness.

Try it yourself and see how well this works!

Relationship Rescue

“All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.”
~ James Russell Lowell ~

Recently I heard that on average, married couples spend 10 minutes a day talking with each other.  That’s a pretty amazingly little amount of time to invest in what most people would say is the most important relationship in their lives.

But when you think about all the distractions of life that challenge our connections to other people, the list is pretty long.

The demands of work, as well as financial concerns; taking care of the needs of children; health challenges; the day-to-day necessities of running a household; and caring for elders for some.  And then the distractions of our “plugged in” lifestyles:  television, computers, electronic games, gadgets and telephones.

It’s no wonder that our relationships get short shrift with all this competition for our attention.

How long has it been since you had an uninterrupted conversation with anyone?  Have you really talked and listened to your kids lately?  Do you know what is going on in their world?  How long has it been since you lingered over coffee with a friend?  Do you know what is going on with your sister or brother or that cousin who lives out of state?

If you prefer activity while you converse, then you might ask a friend, child or partner to go for a hike, or a bike ride.  Anything that provides the chance to enjoy yourself and the company you are in.

It just makes sense that healthy relationships require an investment of our time and attention. You wouldn’t expect your savings account to flourish without making regular deposits.  At the risk of sounding mercenary, our relationships are no different.

Having a conversation is a way to nurture yourself.  And to nurture the people you love.  As a species, we make lousy hermits.  We need a variety of relationships  in order to be healthy.  Take the time to take care of yours.

Relationship Tips 102

Black Eyed Susans

If you asked the man or woman on the street a question about what they would like most in life, they may first tell you some material possession.  More money, a luxury car, a big house for instance.

But I’ll bet that on further reflection, most people would say great relationships.

There are hundreds of thousands of people looking for relationships in bars (all the wrong places) and online dating sites.  If they have a romantic relationship or a marriage relationship, they often feel the need to improve it.

Parents want to feel closer and to have less conflict with their children.  Older parents want to be more involved in the lives of their grown children and grandchildren.

Employees want to feel valued and respected by the companies they work for, and supervisors want cooperation and a friendly working atmosphere with the people they supervise.

To a large extent, the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.

And yet, as important as they are, most of us leave it to chance.  After we choose a husband or wife, for instance, we hope for the best.  And if it isn’t going well, we blame and resent our spouse for not meeting our needs or being who we want them to be.

But what would happen if you treated your relationships like the most precious investment of your life?  After all, that’s what they are.  And yet that sounds like a novel idea.

We are used to thinking of our jobs that way.  And our house mortgages and even our cars.  We don’t spend thousands on these big ticket items and then just hope for the best.  If we did the house would soon be falling down (or in foreclosure) and the car would be sitting by the side of the road with smoke rolling out from under the hood.

Certainly we need to support our relationships with our money.  But the most precious and important commodities that we invest is our time and attention.  How much time have you given the people you love this week?  How much undivided attention have you given them?

I know families who never sit down at the same time to share a meal.  And families who have the television or computer on the whole they are together.  And families who practically live in the car during non-work hours, driving their kids to one lesson or activity after the other.  It may seem important that the children take the lessons in order to have an advantage later in life.  But could it be balanced with time with the family, and time just to play together?

For better relationships, take time for the people you love.  Have a conversation.  Turn off the TV and computer and give them your undivided attention.  Ask your spouse out for a date and woo him or her again.  Go out of your way to impress them.  (If they were meeting you now, would they say yes to a second date?)

If you are having trouble connecting, go get some help.  There are great professionals who do relationship counseling.  I know there is some resistance (aka fear) surrounding this suggestion.  But you wouldn’t think of taking out your own appendix would you?  Most of us wouldn’t change the oil in our cars or replace our own brake pads.

So take courage in hand and invest the time and money in protecting and improving the most precious relationships in your life.

The Victim Triangle

Like planes flying into the Bermuda Triangle and disappearing forever, people in relationships sometimes seem to disappear into the Victim Triangle.  And it can seem just as overpowering and baffling to lose yourself in it.

Our personalities, beliefs and habits (something we could call the “habitual mind”) is formed in relationship to others.  When one person is taken advantage of by another, and this happens consistently, those two dynamics form two parts of the triangle.  So one is a Perpetrator and the other is the Victim.

The third angle in this relationship dynamic is the Rescuer. The person playing this role is essential too because someone is needed to perform rescue operations and to smooth out the aftermath of the conflict.

Two principles are in place here.  One is that all three parts are usually in play, and the other is that people playing these roles will move around the triangle.  In other words, the person who usually plays victim will at some point switch to being perpetrator or rescuer.

Here is an illustration of the Victim Triangle.  In the office is an authoritative boss who plays the perpetrator most of the time.  He is demanding, gruff and at times will fly off the handle, yelling and making scathing comments and accusations to the people who report to him.  Most of them are afraid of him and steer clear.

Martin has been working for the company for 5 years and although his work is adequate, he plays victim most of the time and is often the brunt of the boss’s rants. He is cautious, does just what is required of him and avoids taking any risks by presenting his ideas.  He is secretly very resentful.  He is often late meeting deadlines and late for meetings.

Lucille is Martin’s peer and has been in her job for 3 years.  She is bright, a quick study, energetic and has a sense of humor.  She is also a hard worker, and this quality along with her humor has given her an edge with the boss, who seems to spare her his tirades.

When Martin is late for a staff meeting, he calls Lucille, who makes an excuse for him.  She and Martin were assigned a project, and she was up really late last night rewriting it and getting the slides in order. She completed a section that Martin was responsible for and had left unfinished.  When they did the presentation, she let Martin take the lead.  The boss was unsmiling as usual, but he accepted the report without criticism.

At lunch Lucille is feeling resentful and angry at Martin, and after complaining to some coworkers about how hard she worked and how inept and lazy Martin is, she blew up at him.  She told him how sick she is of covering for him and threatens to let him sink the next time.  This isn’t the first time she has confronted him and then huffed off.  Later as she passes the boss in the hallway, he tells her good job with the report.  She smiles and thanks him.

When Martin arrives home he finds his son’s bicycle in the driveway for the umpteenth time.  He is furious, storms into the house, finds his son playing in his room and yells at the top of his lungs.  He tells him he is worthless and thoughtless and that he is going to just run over the bicycle the next time.  The boy is shaken and in tears as Martin storms off to pour himself a beer.

The boss has also arrived home to the news that his wealthy older brother has pulled his money out of a business deal that they had agreed to recently.  The boss was counting on this money to finance  an expansion project and now it seems impossible to proceed.  His brother has done this thing before, making arbitrary and callous decisions.  The boss had hated asking him, but was feeling desperate.  Business loans seem impossible to come by at this point, and if he doesn’t take some action soon, his whole company may go down the tubes.

And so it goes.  On and on.  The roles are habitual, the patterns are habitual as are the thoughts and emotions that go with them.  All are self defeating in that we really are not being our genuine selves when we play roles.  And playing the roles obviously causes relationship problems.

We can become aware of what we are doing and ask:

  • What am I getting out of playing this role?  How am I avoiding responsibility?
  • Who else is involved in the other roles in my triangles?
  • What hidden beliefs are keeping me in my roles?
  • What might happen if I stopped playing the roles?
  • Am I willing to live without the drama that ensues?  Am I a drama junkie?

Remember all it takes to dissolve the triangle is for one person to stop playing.  We can’t do anything about other people’s choices, it’s true.  But like doing a familiar dance, when one person changes the steps they are taking, the dance itself has to change.

Love and Marriage: Good for your Health?

“If you do not change direction,
you may end up where you are heading.”
~Tao Tzu~

The New York Times ran an article about how marriage affects the state of your health.  Conventional wisdom has said that people who marry tend to live longer and to be healthier than those who don’t.  This is based on the earliest research on the subject which was published in 1858 by British William Farr.

The question has been revisited more recently in studies that look at the more varied nuances of modern life and relationships.  Groups of married couples, couples living together, widowed and divorced and never married people were included.

Generally it seems that the key to relationships and health boil down to how conflicted and stressful it is.  Stress has a bad effect on the immune system.  And the more severe and chronic the level of stress, the worse it is for your health.

What factor seems to boost this stress effect?  Conflict of course.  And the nastier and more personal the conflict, the higher the stress and the longer it takes the body to recover from it.  Couples who can have an argument without personal attacks, and can reach some agreement, show a beneficial effect on their general health.

One study shows that men have a negative reaction to arguments which center around control issues, and that women suffer more from a lack of affection or a feeling of positive regard.  In other words, even during or after an argument, if women perceived that their partner still loved them, they tolerated the stress of the conflict remarkably better than if they didn’t.

The bottom line is that married people do generally live longer and healthier lives than those who never marry or are divorced.  But people who had gotten out of a hostile or cold, conflicted relationship are healthier than those who stay in the marital wars.

If you are married and thus inevitably have conflict, then learn how to fight in a constructive and effective way.  And if you have gotten out of a destructive relationship, then learn what you need to learn about yourself and get over your ex and what happened.  Keeping yourself in a toxic stew of anger, resentment and stress is what is most detrimental to your health.