As a social species, our relationships bring us our greatest joys. They also bring us our greatest sorrows, alas.
Communication is the interface through which we are brought into relationship with each other - with our most intimate circle, friends, colleagues, neighbours, communities and society at large. It is the glue that binds us and gives us a deep sense of belonging, togetherness and meaning. When we feel heard, that is; for when we don’t, we feel isolated and alone.
Yet, in spite of its crucial role in our mental and emotional wellbeing, we take communication surprisingly for granted. We often remain ignorant about how it works and how vital the face-to-face element is. We might have been taught a few manners, or be naturally kind, interested and generous, but the increasing amounts of time we spend on social media alters our brains and therefore us - and not for the better when it comes to being present in relationships.
Communication is always reciprocal
It is the face-to-face and to-ing and fro-ing that changes us both. Authentic communication requires an openness and willingness to be changed, or better still, to be transformed in the process. It asks of us a ‘willingness to be flexible, open, soft-bellied enough to be moved by the truth of the other’, as Zen priest ‘angel Kyodo williams’ puts it.
What does this mean practically and where to begin, if we want to improve our everyday communication? You might want to be a better friend or, improve the quality of your communication in the office.
There are many components to genuine communication but if we focus on listening alone, everything changes massively. And, even if you already spend your life listening to others - does it ever exhaust you? Has it ever led to symptoms of burn-out? If so, you can learn to listen more actively, more ‘compassionately’, in a way that will energise you as much as the person you are with.
How to make your communication genuine
Deep listening is an embodied process.
Be present - in your body - so that you can ‘hold a safe space’ for the other.
Learn to create an inner spaciousness.
Sitting upright, feeling rooted through your seat and feet. Breathe comfortably and notice what arises when you listen in this way.
Empathy alone is not enough.
Although your talking partner may enjoy being listened to sympathetically, real listening requires more. It asks of you to notice and tolerate whatever arises in yourself. This can be an urge to jump in: to save the other from his suffering; or, to offer (your idea of) great solutions.
How easily listening becomes a mere staging post, where you wait for your turn to speak. Sometimes that urge to respond, to say something, is more immediately about getting away from the discomfort that comes up in us, rather than about helping the other.
Embodied presence allows us to notice what happens in us; to notice that we are stirred. The pain we feel can be a reminder of something similar that happened to us, and/or a genuine picking up on the pain of the other.
Either way, effective listening allows us to accept and to hold our own discomfort kindly whilst listening to the story of the other in an open-hearted way. No interruptions at this stage.
Saying nothing can speak volumes
I heard a mother refer to it, to her 10-year old child, as a ‘tea and biscuit moment’. When we fully accept what’s going on in ourselves as well as the other, in other words, when we make space for us both in this way without the urge to change anything (just yet!), the dynamics of the communication change. The other person feels held and heard.
The mother I mentioned created space for the child to share his enormous suffering. ‘God had made a mistake and given him the wrong body. He had meant to be a girl.’ The mum just listened. She offered no immediate solutions, nor did she fill the silence with words. But what her child did hear loudly and clearly were her unspoken words that said ‘I will always love you’.
Be under no illusions here. You can be as warm, talkative and enthusiastic as you like - but the quality of our communication is hinged on our ability to listen: to attend to the other with compassion.
Compassion - like love - offers space within ourselves to allow others and their opinions, interpretations and predicament to be as they are - in this moment.
This is a practice, as much as a tool, for which we don’t even need to ‘like’ the other. Tuning into ‘what is’ like that, puts you directly in touch with the vulnerability at the heart of our shared humanity.
Real listening is always a gift: to yourself, as well as, to the other. It transforms communication from a turn-taking exercise, to a co-created, jointly experienced relationship.
Renée van der Vloodt ( M.A. , FHGI ) is a psychotherapist and coach – and has had a private practice for over 20 years, which is now based in Woodchurch (near Ashford), Kent.
Renée works with children and adults as a coach and therapist to help them overcome life's challenges and emotional difficulties including stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger or addictive behaviour.
Renée is a regular contributor to Breathe Magazine and the author of the CD Calm the Chaos of the Creative Mind.