It is sometimes said that people primarily listen with their hearts, not their ears. The first time that I was told this statement was during a train-the-trainer session to implement the non-violent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. At first, I was puzzled by the statement because I wondered what my heart had to do with listening. Then the instructor indicated that when people have broken hearts, they build a wall to protect their heart from the outside attacks, but that same wall keeps the pain inside. Therefore, the pains in their heart take up energy, and drive the focus of what enters through their ears.
Similarly, during a class while I was a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, our professor explained how important the mind was for listening and seeing. She explained how what comes through our eyes would not make any sense if they were not filtered through the brain. Similarly, what comes through the ears will make no sense if not filtered through the brain.
Now, add to those realities that what comes through the ears will make no sense if not filtered through the heart, and the brain. You may ask, what does this have to do with communication? Okay, check this out.
Is there someone that you absolutely respect and admire? Can you remember the last time that you heard that person speak; the last thing they may have said to you? What were you thinking while they were speaking? How were you feeling while they were speaking?
Now, let’s try another example.
Is there someone that you absolutely dislike, and for whom you have little to no respect? Can you remember the last time that you heard that person speak; the last thing they may have said to you? What were you thinking while they were speaking? How were you feeling while they were speaking?
The point is that when you do not have sufficient respect for a person it is very difficult to think positively about them, to give them the benefit of the doubt, or even accurately understand what they are saying, most of the time. This is because your negative emotions about them get in the way of how their information is being filtered through your brain.
So now you may want to know how to develop respect for someone with whom you need to communicate (such as an ex-spouse for co-parenting, your micromanaging supervisor, your children, and the like). I suggest that you make an appointment with a counselor to help you navigate through those thoughts, feelings, and logistics.
For now, try using the I Statement as a script to guide you through those annoying communication episodes. The idea is that instead of going off on the person they way you may have done in the past, say the following: When you ______(do certain things), I feel ______ (happy, hurt, disappointed, scared, worried, unloved, belittled, etc.), because ___________ (I tend to believe that). For example, when you stay out late at nights and do not call to update me, I feel worried, because I tend to believe that you got into a fatal accident.
The idea is that, if people really care about each other, they will not want to impose negative emotions onto them. Then if they do, they will want to improve their behaviors to avoid causing that person more pain. Besides, when you use the I Statement, you may make yourself vulnerable to the listener by expressing an emotion that you do not like to have. This may activate the empathy of your partner and pave the way for them to act on that empathy and activate a behavioral change that will impose less negative emotions on you.
So try the I Statement and see how that works for you. If you make some breakthrough, or even if you do not, I still recommend making an appointment with a counselor to learn how to communicate better without letting your feelings, words, and thoughts get in the way and make matters worse. The I Statement will help establish better mutual respect, and more effective communication.
Written By: Peter K.B. St Jean, Masters Level Intern
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