Listen with your whole body, not just your ears.
Have you ever been in a situation where a friend is upset at you, and you just don’t understand why? They end up recalling stories that portray you as the culprit and them as the victim, but your version of the same story is completely different. The argument then becomes an exercise in finding holes in each other’s stories. In the end, both sides end up unhappy, still thinking the other one has wronged them. I’ve had my share of these experiences, but lately I realized that I was not addressing the issue at hand.
I recently had an uncomfortable conversation with a group of friends. The kind of conversation where one of the friends is unhappy with the rest of the group and talks about it in an accusatory matter, pointing out their reprimandable behaviours from the past. My natural reaction is to logically address each of the presented scenarios and correct all the misinterpretations. But, this time I stopped myself from doing that. Instead, I listened more intently and observed. I was observing how everyone was responding, including myself. I was noticing the uncomfortable silences when certain things, seemingly loaded with anger and resentment, were being said. Different perspectives create different stories. As I became more aware of this, I asked myself “What is really going on here?”. This was not about logic. This was about feelings. It was not about the words being said but about the message behind the words. And the message I was getting from my observations was completely different than the message I was getting from the words I was hearing.
There’s a Japanese saying, floating on the Internet, explaining that we all have three faces: The first face we show to the world, the second face, we show to our close friends and family and the third face, we seldom show anyone and it is the truest reflection of who we are. I think that these faces all speak at the same time when we’re having a conversation with someone, but they used different languages at different volumes. The first face will be the loudest and most obvious. The third will be the quietest and least obvious. If we want to hear what the second or third face is trying to tell us, we need to listen more intentionally.
During that uncomfortable conversation, instead of paying attention to the words that were coming from the first face, I paid attention to what the second and perhaps the third faces were saying. While the first face was blaming others, the other faces were sending messages of feeling hurt. It seems like subconsciously the first face was protecting the other by diverting attention outward. By blaming others, the natural response on the receiving end is to become defensive. When we’re defensive, we’re paying attention to ourselves more than the other. So, by subconsciously diverting our attention to ourselves, the first face “protected” the more sensitive and emotional second and third faces. However, when the second and third faces are not being seen or heard, the feelings of being hurt deepen. So instead of “defending” myself from the blame, I decided to bypass the message from the first face and address the message of the other faces to the best of my ability. I believe it made a positive difference and ease the tension a bit. I’m still learning.
A couple days later, I was journaling and something came up: “Listen with your whole body, not just with your ears.” Very often, I tend to hear the words that someone is telling me, but I’m not always fully present to the message. By doing that I’m missing out on all the other cues that are coming from the person I’m having a conversation with. It’s something that I plan to practice more when I’m aware of it and by doing so I can adapt my response to address the core message instead of the surface message.
Now, when I have a conversation with a friend, especially when that friend is emotional, I try as much as I can to remember to stop and ask myself, what is he or she really saying beyond the words that I’m hearing? What’s the message? Instead of getting into some sort of verbal ping pong, I try to look beyond the words and see what is really going on. Essentially I do my best to be present and listen with my whole being as opposed to just my ears. Communication doesn’t happen simply through words, but also through body language and energy.
Effective communication requires presence, especially in times where attention is easily taken away by something a simple as notification bells on mobile devices. For example when someone is upset with you and starts saying what seems to be all kinds of nonsense. Instead of retaliating and proving that what that person is saying is not true, essentially starting a game of verbal ping pong, take a step back and really look into where that’s coming from. What is that person really saying? How are they feeling? When a friend says things like “you always do this” or “you never do that”, and you know for a fact that it’s not true: Throwing that back at them will not help the friendship because that’s not the real issue. More often than none, it comes from a deeper issue related to an uncomfortable feeling or a core wound that’s been opened. Addressing that instead will be more effective and helpful. Sometime all that friend needs is a reminder that they are loved and cared for, that they won’t be abandoned or that they are not alone. So instead of recounting and correcting the stories from the past, it’s best to say “I hear you” or “Just remember that I really care about you and want the best for you.”
So, how can you be a better friend? Be fully present, not only by listening to your friend with your ears but with your whole being.