“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t being said.” -Anonymous
The strength and endurance training in any and all relationships starts and ends with the capacity for communication. I have often called our communication skills the currency of a relationship, because it is literally the air that lives between people that makes their relationship vital or suffocating. It is perhaps the most complex set of skills that healthy relationships require because it is close to impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood. This is not only because our spoken words make up only a small fraction of the myriad ways we communicate. We also communicate through our tone of voice, facial expressions and body language.
The biggest complication is that we often communicate without fully understanding the needs, desires and judgments we are expressing.
It is no wonder that communication issues are frequently identified as the most challenging aspect of relating and the place where relationships falter. We stubbornly hang onto the belief that if we have expressed ourselves clearly, the communication is made. This belief overlooks the fact that other people can only hear you when they are moving towards you, which is usually not happening when they feel like they are being pursued by your words. The healing revelation in relationships occurs when we recognize that the most powerful experience in communicating happens through listening and not expression.
Learning to listen is not an easy skill to develop and is arguably in short supply in many relationships and even in life itself. To listen well we must begin by recognizing that the most important thing we give to someone we love is our full attention, free of judgment and expectation. We must be willing to open to the loving silence which real listening requires. Cultivating this internal quiet slows down the interaction so that you hear not just the words, but the meaning behind them. Communication transforms into connection when we listen not for what someone knows but for who they are.
This kind of communication is the moment our relationships create grace. It carries a truly magnetic current that pulls both people into full presence and allows both parties to unfold and know themselves and each other. Truth telling, even the most difficult truths are able to be expressed in the shelter of this being heard, which is so similar to being loved that most people can’t tell them apart.
The following story has many classic communication issues. Which can you identify? How do the communications get crossed between them? How do they misinterpret this miscommunication? Where is the breakthrough?
Jenny didn’t hear her voice getting louder the way Mark did. He never raised his voice and went from annoyed to stony in a matter of minutes when Jenny’s requests got loud. She had grown up in a house where people yelled all the time. At good moments between them, they laughed at what a cruel trick their marriage was- they couldn’t have been any more different… But more often their arguments took more of their attention.
In truth they had never really understood how to talk to each other. They shared a simmering attraction and deep tenderness for each other but their communication was usually a mess. Jenny would ask Mark to do things with her around the house and invite him to do special things like drive to the beach. She was convinced she was clear, but it seemed like almost every plan she envisioned with him went a different way. He would show up late with the paint and with the wrong color or invite his best friend to come to the beach with them. Mark usually had no idea that Jenny was frustrated. He thought she was just moody.
Each time she communicated the edge between them seemed to grow in her mind. Even small requests like taking out the garbage or picking up dinner started with an elevated tone that Jenny didn’t even hear and that sent Mark further away from her.
Mark’s retreat only confirmed for Jenny that he never listened to her or even cared about what she said. For his part, Mark just was trying to stay out of the line of fire, as it seemed to him, he couldn’t do anything right.
One evening, Jenny broke down in the kitchen after a particularly painful argument.
She felt terrible about the mean things she had said to Mark, but she wanted to hurt him the way she felt hurt and abandoned. She sat crying with her head in her hands. Mark sat down next to her. Neither one spoke. The silence between them softened and Mark put his hand on her leg.
Jenny looked up and saw him holding her in his gaze with no malice. He said, “I am not trying to hurt you, really. I guess I don’t know how to listen to you.” Jenny cried harder and leaned into Mark’s chest.
“I didn’t know how to tell you how much I wanted you to hear me.” She said.
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Consider a communication story that is challenging in your own life. What are you trying to say that isn’t being heard? Do you know what your partner needs to feel heard? Replay the last frustrating conversation in your mind and imagine if you had inserted this question into the conversation. Would it have changed the direction of the conversation?
Listening Practice: Next time you find yourself boiling with something you need to express, try to stop and listen inside. What needs to be heard? Give yourself 5- 10 minutes of quiet to see what comes to the top of all the words waiting to spill out of you.
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When we come to the important conversations in our life with the will to listen inside and to those we love, it turns our ability to communicate inside out. We get to the heart of what communication has to offer- a feeling of deep connection and of being seen for who we are. Cultivating the silence that allows your partnership to unfold before your eyes makes all the day to day logistical communicating a simpler practice because it isn’t burdened with the invisible weight of being heard.