Last month, after a few very busy weeks of talking in my counselling practice combined with the end-of-term strain of teaching counselling to students who were worried about their assessments, a sore throat caught up with me. Every time I spoke for more than a few minutes, I would start coughing and lose my voice. My doctor told me that not talking was the answer. I’d strained my vocal cords and recommended that I allow time for recuperation by speaking less whenever possible.
I decided to adopt three days of silence at home, which honestly, for me, was blissfully similar to doing a mini meditation retreat at home. I realise for many of you this could possibly feel like hell on wheels, but as a dedicated meditator, I regard retreat times as precious reminders of the subtlety and power of living with heightened awareness. After those initial three days, I promised myself that for a week I would speak 75% less and continued to practice significantly reducing my words.
Because the teaching term was at an end, it meant that in my daily life and my counselling practice I would say a lot less and listen a lot more than usual. I regarded speaking less at work and home as an experiment. What if, 8 times out of 10, I held back my comments? What if I allowed myself more space between what others said and gave a briefer-than-normal response? What if I took more time to ponder what I heard and focused more on watching any reaction I may have to it? This meant counselling using the more traditional way of doing therapy, being less verbally interactive, more reflective. Not speaking is about a lot more than listening. I observed more closely my clients and the people with whom I interacted daily. And I began to question some of my own assumptions about collaboration in interpersonal relationships and daily living in general.
Here are a few insights that you can try in your relationship:
1. Watching is as important as listening.
When you are trying to understand those around you, just listening to someone’s words is not enough. Body language and other non-verbal means of communication like gestures, voice tone, pace and volume provide valuable clues for meaning and intention. Clear non-verbal cues like frowns or smiles, eye contact and eye movements, adjusting clothes, or moving objects while speaking provide valuable information. Half the information we get in a discussion is visual, but we’re often too busy listening and thinking to watch. Rather than thinking of what to say next, take a moment to consider what you see in your partner and focus inward on how that impacts you.
2. Lead with questions, not answers.
During my week of semi-silence, I asked more questions than normal. They’re shorter than statements, and after posing a question you get to sit back, listen and think. Asking questions helps you more fully understand your partner’s feelings and thoughts and gives you additional information. Questions express your interest in what is being communicated and if asked with respect and without prying, are invaluable for creating connection. There’s an old adage that says “If you want to be interesting, be interested”.
3. Pace yourself and acknowledge others.
Sometimes waiting to respond and taking a pause works wonders. There is a fascinating movie from the ’70s called Being There. In the movie, the main character is a very simple, illiterate man who becomes world famous without ever saying anything more than a few basic words. Miraculously, he would elicit a deep level of engagement and intrigue with everyone he met by simply listening and acknowledging. Often, when someone would speak to him, he would take a long pause and smile. The person would then continue to speak, often answering their own question. Then, he would look the person straight in the eye, and say a sincere “thank you.” With a dose of patience and acknowledgement, the world seemed to fall into place around him.
In the real world, we all get anxious about subjects we care about. We like to respond to opportunities quickly, and resolve problems immediately. But perhaps there are times when we should restrain ourselves. In a discussion or negotiation with your partner, try waiting rather than responding right away. As they say, “good things come to those who wait.” The solution may reveal itself if you give it a chance.
4. Embrace setbacks as learning opportunities.
My voice has recovered and I am again able to speak more liberally. But I am trying to carry on (and share) my lessons. Periods of distress are inevitable for all of us. The only part of difficulties and challenges that we have control over is what we take away from them. The greatest opportunity for self-improvement and growth for your relationship is following a time of adversity with the willingness to absorb the lesson. When this happens in your relationship, practice accepting that setbacks are inevitable.
What’s Your Experience?
Have you ever tried enduring a period of silence, or just focused on listening more? What happened?
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