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.”


Making Connection

“With That Moon Language”
by Hafiz

Admit something

Everyone you see, you say to them
“Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud;
Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,
The great pull in us
To connect.

Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,

With that sweet moon

What every other eye in this world
Is dying to


Source:  The Gift


Stop Complaining!

To change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.” 
~Stephen Covey~

With the beginning of the New Year, many of us have some new resolutions in mind.  Or maybe as I indicated in my last post, some recycled resolutions from the previous years.

While it is important to have the Big Picture in mind, it is only in taking small, consistent steps that we move along on our journey.  So yes, by all means you need to develop your map to your desired destination to better relationships, better health, a different career, financial freedom, or whatever it is.

But don’t get bogged down by overwhelming yourself with a huge task.  Remember that all we have in terms of making life change is this immediate moment:  Right Now.

The first one is to quit complaining.  This one is simple, but not easy.  Chronic complaining is more of an epidemic than Swine Flu, and more toxic in its effects.  Today observe the conversations around you.  Notice how much of the talk in the office or the lunch room, or the television commentary consists of complaining.

Employees complain about the boss.  The wife complains about her husband.  The father complains about his kids.  Everyone complains about the weather.  Both political parties complain about each other.  Citizens complain about congress.

This is a habit of thought.  A bad habit that gets so ingrained that we aren’t even aware that complaining is going on in our own thoughts pretty much all day. Complaining keeps you constantly focused on what is missing in your life. A certain prescription for unhappiness. You do have the ability to observe yourself with curiosity and compassion and notice that you are complaining.

So what’s so bad about this, you may be asking.  Here are some of the negative effects of this mental habit:

  •  Thoughts create emotions.  We create our emotional states by patterns of thinking, in large part.  Complaining thoughts create irritation, annoyance and anger.  Not a great way to go through the day.
  •  Complaining keeps our attention focused on what’s wrong.  When we complain about our family members, we stay focused on what’s wrong with them, not their positive qualities.  What we pay attention to gets bigger.  After awhile all we can see and acknowledge is what irritates us.  And we get more and more of it!
  •  Complaining creates helplessness and hopelessness, the hallmarks of depression.  We become victims and present ourselves as victims to others.  We give up our power to the persons or situations that we complain about.
  •  Complaining lays the groundwork for our excuses.  If my boss is an unreasonable ogre or the bureaucracy that I work in is “run by a bunch of idiots,” then nothing that happens is my responsibility.  What’s the point of asserting myself?  Why take action to change anything?  I can just stay there and complain.  And believe me, I will find a lot of company in a lunch room full of complainers.
  •  By complaining, we create a state of stress within ourselves.  The effects of stress on our health are well documented as one of the biggest underlying threats to body/mind and relationships.  We get depressed, anxious; develop inflammation in joints, blood vessels and organs, which is the pathway to disease.
  •  Complaining blocks our way to creative solutions.  When you check out your thinking in the midst of a complaint, notice how you are making the other guy wrong and yourself right.  You are immediately polarized into fixed positions and therefore unable to be flexible and to perceive the situation in a new light.

When you quit complaining, you will empower yourself to make real change in your life.  You will notice that the quality of your relationships will improve.  You will be less stressed and generally happier because your focus will change to what is possible, not what is impossible and has you trapped.  And most importantly, you will see that the trap that you were in was of your own making, and that escaping it and building the life of your dreams really is possible.

You may be asking, “So how do I change this bad habit?” By doing two things instead of complaining:  interrupt yourself when you notice that you are playing “Ain’t it Awful?” with another person. You know the game…Ain’t it awful that the weather is so cold, or hot, or wet or dry? Ain’t it awful that we aren’t going to get the raise we hoped for? Ain’t it awful that young people today are so disrespectful? Ain’t it awful that my wife nags me about helping out?  When you hear yourself playing this very popular game JUST STOP IT!

The second thing you can do to end this harmful habit is by writing a gratitude list every day. It is impossible to be focused on what you are lacking and complaining about it and also feeling positive and grateful for what is present in your life!  Begin or end every day by writing down the things that you see are going right with your life and the person you are arguing with.

As you make your list, take time to allow yourself to breathe deeply and to really feel grateful! It’s okay if you repeat items the next day. JUST DO IT!


Thanksgiving Wishes

It’s getting late on the night before Thanksgiving. My daughter and I have been having what has become our own tradition of some crazy holiday cooking. We both enjoy cooking.  I prefer the alchemical process of cooking, grasping the concepts and principles, then often flying by the seat of my pants. She is an excellent baker because she understands the more exacting science of baking and follows recipes to the tee (yes, sometimes I lack the patience). We make a good team. And we have a lot of fun.

Each Thanksgiving and Christmas we are bouncing back and forth between the inspirations of old favorites and also untried recipes and the gorgeous pictures accompanying them, and trying to rein ourselves in from creating an impossible and stressful job. We have had some stellar successes as well as some equally harrowing (and now funny) results.

The best part of it is keeping each other company and chatting while we work. It is an echo of my memories of my mother and grandmothers working together in the kitchen, and occasionally asking us kids to help, but mostly trying to keep us out from underfoot.  Such scenes are being carried out in kitchens and dining rooms across America and probably in yours.

This year my Thanksgiving reflections are bittersweet.  A dear friend is losing her courageous and unflagging battle with cancer, and thoughts of her of much on my mind and in my heart. Needing to shift my focus from anxiety and despair, I have been writing in my journal about the many gifts of our friendship, and how much knowing her has enriched my life.

It seems that holidays and the memories they bring up, remind us of those family and friends that we have loved and lost. And yet the ways in which they have touched and shaped our lives will never be lost. Nor is the love we still feel when we think of them. I believe that love ultimately is Divine, and everlasting, even though the human form may be gone.

The thing I love most about Thanksgiving is the obvious: it is a time of gathering with others and regardless of our particular religious beliefs and practices, we express our gratitude. By now of course we know that gratitude is one the the best things we can do for our health and the well-being of our relationships.

So despite the challenges that you may have experienced over the year, my wish for you is that you will spend the day in the company of people you love. And that you will reflect on the gifts of your life and to simply express your thanks for them. And if you actually write the list, I hope that you will find it astonishingly long.

Quotation for the Day

“I think if I’ve learned anything about friendship, it’s to hang in,
stay connected, fight for them, and let them fight for you.
Don’t walk away, don’t be distracted, don’t be too busy or tired,
don’t take them for granted.  Friends are part of the glue
that holds life and faith together.  Powerful stuff.”

~Jon Katz~ 

The Value of Failure

“We must be willing to fail and to appreciate the truth
that often Life is not a problem to be solved,
but a mystery to be lived.”
~M. Scott Peck~


He had come to a difficult and painful decision after meeting with the accountant who delivered the bad news.  His hard work and determination had not paid off and the business was clearly in the red.  The bank was not willing to make another loan and any further debt needed to keep the business afloat for the next 6 months would put the family home in jeopardy.  He would have a sale to liquidate as much of the stock in the store as he could and then close the doors at the end of the month.  He would try to unload anything left on EBay.

His wife would be relieved.  She had been expressing her objections for months to keeping the store open.  Their finances were strained and she was tired of the long hours he put in that meant his absence from her and the children.  They had been arguing more than usual and the tension was really uncomfortable.  For years the store had barely showed a profit; just enough to invest in some upgrades but not enough for them to invest in savings.  Her income kept the family afloat but not with much to spare.

He felt like a failure and that was the worst part. It didn’t help that other businesses were struggling and closing in a tough economy.  It didn’t matter that he had his wife’s support when he left his high-paying corporate job that he heartily disliked.  He knew that his dad thought he was nuts for leaving that job and buying the store.  And his brother who made the family proud by being a doctor with a high income, definitely represented success. When they finally did regroup, paying off the debt they owed, he and his wife would be essentially starting over again.  And he clearly blamed himself for it.

Although your circumstances may be very different, most likely you can identify with how this man feels.  Failure is a bitter pill to swallow whether it is a school project or class that you failed, a marriage that ended, a job that you got fired or laid off from, or a book transcript that was refused by the fifth publisher you sent it to.

Feeling the shame of failing and the fear of other people’s disapproval definitely can be overwhelming.  It will take some working through these emotions to get to the treasure that is buried under all that pain.  And as odd as it sounds, there IS treasure under there.  Here are some things you may want to consider and do:

  • Begin by accepting full responsibility for your choices and the outcome.  This is not the same as self-blame.  It means being willing to own it all and by doing so see the conscious and unconscious motivations that prompted you to “sign up” for the experience in the first place.
  • Allow time for introspection and reflection instead of busying yourself with a new project, new partner, addictive or distracting processes.  For instance if you are divorcing, don’t start looking for your next love interest.  If you do you can count on repeating the same pattern all over again.  This is tempting because it seems to make you feel better, but that kind of feeling better is a temporary fix that will lead you to more misery down the road.
  • Find help in the form of a good therapist as an objective sounding board.  He or she will help you see things that your mother or best friend won’t.
  • Use a journal and ask yourself a couple of important questions:  What lessons am I supposed to learn from this experience?  What do I need to do?  How do I need to change in order to move forward?
  • Practice living independent of the good opinion of others.  Failure is a great time to make this big developmental leap.  Most of us are conditioned to be pleasing to others, to get everyone else’s approval.  Living independent of approval from others is not the same as a typical “I don’t care what anyone thinks!” which is merely a defense.  It means tolerating the discomfort when others don’t understand or approve, or in fact disappear from your life even though they may have made supportive sounds in the beginning.  As you learn this lesson, you will be freed to listen more deeply and carefully to your own values and intuition and to make decisions that truly are in your best interest.
  • Practice not taking everyone else’s opinions and behavior personally.  You have no control over what other people think and say.  And the truth is that everyone is uncomfortable with failure!  Even when they are not consciously aware of it, your friends and family members will be reacting to their own fears and doubts that are about them and not you.
  • Make a recovery plan and allow yourself time for healing.  Work on forgiving yourself and anyone else involved in the situation.  Again, seek help with this.  Most people have a poor idea of what forgiveness really is!  Put most basically, forgiveness is a process of letting go of pain, anger and resentment which is essential for your physical, psychological and spiritual health.  It takes effort over time to accomplish, and is essential for you to be free to move ahead with your life.
  • Tend to your physical needs and put your personal care at the top of your list.  Get adequate sleep, eat good, nutritional food and curtail drinking alcohol.  Pay attention and avoid toxic situations whether they involve substance abuse or high drama or negative people.  Get some exercise and drink plenty of water every day.  If you meditate, take some time for it several times a week.  If you don’t this would be a dandy time to begin.

Failure is a great teacher.  Even though most of us dread it, the truth is that we learn much more from failure than we ever do from success.  The other day I was thinking that we really would prefer that the lessons in life come in a way we would like.  A box from Macy’s, wrapped beautifully in paper and ribbons would be nice.  But they seem instead to come covered in horse manure or stinky fish entrails.  It is our job to endure the unpleasant stink of the failure and to persevere in digging for the treasure that will take us to the next stage of life.

Coping with Disappointment

“Every adversity, every failure and every heartache
carries with it the seed of an equivalent
or greater benefit.”
~Napoleon Hill”


Yesterday I got a not-so-gentle reminder that my agenda doesn’t necessarily apply to other people.  Even for people that I love and care about.  Even though I know this and believe it on an intellectual basis, sometimes I confess that I find it hard to live with.

For instance, I truly value the importance of individuals figuring out what is most important to them.  And I believe that each and every one of us has a lifetime to learn the lessons that we need and to apply them in a way that benefits us, and hopefully others as well.  I believe that these pathways, if you will, are unique to each of us.

Obviously those values and priorities sometimes put us in conflict with each other. 

We were talking about vacation plans, and having made an invitation, was looking forward to a reunion and hanging out together.  Catching up and enjoying each other’s company is my idea of a vacation.  Their preference for sight-seeing and attending events is fun, but a distant second on my list of preferences.

How can a conflict over a visit feel so disappointing?  As I read this it seems that something sounding so superficial should not be painful.  But it was.  I clearly had been expecting one outcome and was very sad to learn that it was not going to work out that way.    I didn’t really have a choice in the matter.  It was someone else’s decision, and they have every right to make it.  So what can I do about it?

Deal with my own thoughts and feelings and behavior; the part for which I am fully responsible.  And my thoughts and feelings were all over the map:  disappointed, sad, hurt (over imagining what their choice meant) and then angry.  My impulse is usually  to “take someone else’s inventory,” as saying goes.  And then (even worse) contact them to see if they are aware of the impact of their behavior.  I called myself back from that.  Bad idea.

After accepting that these were my thoughts and feelings, I remembered the words of an old friend, who once wisely told me that I needed to learn to take the No’s as well as the Yes’s.  It was advice I didn’t much like hearing at the time, but it had the ring of truth and it still does.

I also needed to accept that my preferences were not going to be met this time. And that I really needed to lower my expectations of other people’s behavior.  Their choices about the vacation are going to meet their own needs and values.  I don’t understand them or like them in this case, because they conflict with my own.

So there it is:  one way to deal with disappointment is to lower my expectations of other people.  My “Higher Self,” the part of me that holds my values and cares about the greater good, knows this is right.  And hopefully someday my “Lower Self,” the corresponding emotional aspect that wants what it wants, will adjust and maybe even catch up.