Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
“You’re not listening to me!”
Have you ever said this or been told this by your love-partner?
This week we are going to have a break from our journey stories and do a little brain exercise.
Stop what you are doing right now, close your eyes and listen. Listen. Yes, I mean right now, listen. What can you hear? The loud sounds, the repetitive sounds, the hums, the murmurs. Really listen. Listen for details. Listen for about a minute.
OK, so that’s your first step into listening.
Now ask yourself the question “how do those sounds make me feel?” Secure? Lonely? Annoyed? Bored? Good. Now you are active listening.
This was a simple exercise, but for that whole time you were activating one area of your brain that we rarely use in our extra world. Because of all the distractions and attention grabbing, we almost need to learn how to listen from scratch.
This morning I was standing out on my verandah while a wild storm raged around me. I was so overwhelmed by the sounds of nature that I momentarily forgot my work worries, family worries, friend worries, cat worries, health worries. The sounds of nature can be so healing, they can also teach us how to listen. Here is an exercise Christian has developed to help you to shut out the clamouring world and re-learn how to listen.
Get out in nature. Find a spot to relax and be undisturbed. Take a decent chunk of time, at least an hour. Lie on the grass, sit on a bench, on sand or wherever. Look around to familiarise yourself with nature’s wonder. Take a few deep breathes. Relax.
Then close your eyes and just listen.
Hear; then listen; then actively listen. Open up your thoughts and feelings and allow the sounds, however short or quiet, to affect your inner world.
Ask yourself these questions.
What is that sound?
Why is it happening now?
What does it remind me of?
What emotions does it evoke in me?
What other thoughts does the sound lead me to?
Move on to another sound and follow through the same questions. There may be four or five dominant sounds around you. Listen to silence as well, and work through the same questions.
Do this task in a nature location. Find a space, have some time, and have a willingness to listen. The experience can do wonders.
Learning to actively listen to nature sounds lays the groundwork for deep listening to another human being: you just have to be there, sounds come at you, there is nothing to judge, there is no problem to solve, and you cultivate warm feelings of trust just by being in nature. (taken from Heim Listen: how to)
Listening is all about trust, time and selflessness. I know the times when I am not listening. These are usually the thoughts that are going on in my head:
Planning what my next activity for the day will be
Making judgements about what the other person is saying.
Thinking about what I will say next.
Thinking about how the other person is perceiving me.
Thinking about how I look (yes, my appearance) while I am listening.
When I want to deeply listen to another human being, I have to put all of that inner dialogue aside and really be there. Heart, soul and mind. Just as I am overwhelmed by nature during a storm, I have learnt to be overwhelmed by another person’s emotions, not my own. If you take on this simple skill of listening, you can say “OK, I’m listening” to your love-partner and go deeper in your relationship. Listening is a gift you give someone else.
Do you have a list of things you don’t like about your love partner?
I don’t like her ….
He makes me upset when he….
She always …
I love a good list.
Shakespeare wrote a play about people writing lists of likes and dislikes of the people they love. It’s called As You Like It. The pining lover Orlando writes lists of all the things he loves about Rosalind and pins the lists to the trees in The Forest of Arden. Romantic huh?
Then there’s Phoebe, she’s a shepherdess (no gender-neutral pronouns in those times). She’s a lot more down to earth. She compiles a list of the good and bad attributes of the “boy” she has fallen in love with.
Two weeks ago we talked about how unspoken words can gradually erode a relationship. So can unspoken lists. People often play a role in a relationship, second guessing how the other person would like them to act. They play “As You Like It” not “As It Is.” They are not honest.
Because they want to keep the peace
Because they don’t want to hurt their partner
Because “you have always got to be positive”
Or worse, because they compare the happiness level in their own relationship to those in others:
As Orlando says, “O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes!” (As You Like It Act 5, Sc 2)
“I’m leaving you.”
Brandon walked out leaving my friend Alana so shocked she couldn’t even cry.
Yes, it had come out of nowhere.
Yes, she didn’t know why.
One of the most tragic things that can happen in divorce and separation is when a partner just leaves, doesn’t say the unspoken words, doesn’t share his/her list, doesn’t give the other person the opportunity to change. Just says “I’ve had enough!” Enough of what? Not sharing your list of dislikes, of unmet needs, of hurts is unfair. You never gave the relationship a chance.
There is an alternative to a relationship breakdown: nurturing your relationship to improve it. As idealistic as it sounds, this is a realistic consideration.
Do you have the courage to try and make it work?
This is where list sharing is very important. Get out your lists. Your dislikes list and your likes list. Make sure you each have two lists.
Schedule a day or a weekend of deep disclosure. This is very scary, so be careful and gentle. Taking turns and taking time, really listen to the dislikes, hurts and unmet needs over the years. Apologise. Then take turns to listen to how you have helped each other to grow and nourish. Say thank you. You may be surprised how much of an impact you have had on each other over the years. Thank them for letting you know.
It is a difficult assignment which needs much courage and understanding. It presupposes you are committed to going forward. If your relationship is on shaky ground at the moment, postpone the “dislikes” list and share the “likes” only.
I have two lists about Christian, the things I like and the things I don’t like.
As much as I love lists, it has been hard for me to share my lists with Christian: both lists. Pride, embarrassment, fear of hurting, one-up-womanship, all inhibit my list sharing.
We have a small Forest of Arden beyond our back fence. Seasons and time have weathered and changed the lists I pinned on the trees long ago. Some of the dislikes have turned to likes as we have grown closer. Many of the past likes are now superfluous. Some entries have not and will not change. The important thing is that our relationship does not depend on crossing things off the dislike list or adding to the like list. It depends on deep, committed sharing of the hurts, unmet needs and dislikes, and rejoicing in the likes.
A word of caution. If you are going to share your lists … be gentle. Very, very gentle.
Our cat went missing last week.
He didn’t like the new place he was staying so he went walkabout. I was very upset and spent hours drawing pictures of him and writing “Missing B & W Cat” on signs which I hung all over our old neighbourhood. He’s at least 15 years old and very fat, so I didn’t think he would have gone very far.
I missed him.
Our cat is the best listener I know. I often practice my lectures in front of him.
At times he is so concentrated on what I am doing that he will stop licking his paw and keep it suspended in the air while he stares at me. Our son timed him doing this once: 65 seconds.
At other times he will listen for a while and then curl up in a ball and go to sleep purring, very contented.
I learn a lot about listening from our cat. He is never judgmental or critical.
I wish I could be more like that.
To truly listen, deeply, actively listen to another person, we need to suspend our own judgments and beliefs.
Listening means shelving your beliefs and judgments. I don’t know what my cat believed in, but I never felt judged by him (except when I went to pat the dog).
In listening, you offer the opportunity for the talker to express any opinion, even if it differs from your own. You want them to feel free to do this, or else they will alter what they say, or stop speaking altogether. They don’t want to feel judged or have you disagree with them.
The first step is to let go of judgment comments. My cat did this very well.
Shelving beliefs and judgments is really hard: especially when you feel strongly about them. When Christian is talking about something I disagree with I often have an internal monologue going on:
“Well, that isn’t right”
“Huh! That’s what he thinks”
When I catch myself doing this I try and visualize putting my beliefs in a box, closing it and putting it on a shelf in my mind. Only then can I give him my full concentration. Like my cat’s paw, I need to learn to keep my thoughts suspended and temporarily forget or even care about them.
Shelving your beliefs is different than changing your beliefs. Shelving creates room in your mind and heart to listen deeply with your whole being.
Learning to shelve beliefs and opinions when listening is challenging and takes practice. You may fail often. I do. But because it involves sacrifice, it opens a new space in your relationship for love to thrive.
Someone sent me a text yesterday with a picture of a ragged cat sitting on their back deck.
“Is this your cat?”
He had walked several miles, crossing very busy roads to return to our old home. He hadn’t eaten in four days and was exhausted, and limp, and scared. When we went to get him he ran away at first, but when he heard the sound of my voice he paused. Our very scared cat knew my voice well. He had spent many hours listening to it. This time he also listened to the love underneath.
We bundled him up and took him to a place where he was secure, safe, well-fed and at home.
“I just need you to listen!”
I was exasperated.
We were driving through the countryside - to the Sunshine Coast - and this was the first chance we have had to talk - really talk - for many weeks.
Moving house has taken its toll. We are exhausted and drained physically and mentally. We have both have been given extra responsibility at work on top of the move, and our lads weren't around to help.
The worst part part for me? No time for our walk-talks. I sort through emotions, confusions, hurts, grief, pain and challenges by talking them out with Christian while walking in nature. These walks stabilise and heal. But we were too busy. I felt I had to carry everyone else through at home and at work. My bottled up emotions were running over and stealing my sleep. I was desperate for a walk-talk. A drive through jagged mountains and blue/grey bushland seemed the best substitute.
Once we left the city behind and miles of trees stretched before us, I opened up with pent up thoughts and feelings. We talked. Christian too has been under pressure, so the talking didn’t go well. Every time I shared an issue, confusion or hurt, he came up with a solution. (That's not what I needed.)
“And Alisha keeps interrupting me while I’m working. She knows I have a deadline.”
“Well remind her that you have a deadline”
“She already knows, but it’s not that simple. She’s going through a lot at home and I’m usually her sounding board. I don't want to fob her off.”
“Well be a broken record. She needs to get the message that you can’t be there all the time.”
This was unlike Christian. I just needed him to listen. His resources were depleted. Like me, he wasn’t sleeping so he fell into his old habit of problem solving.
"But it's not that simple!!!” I politely yelled.
Listening is not problem solving.
Often, in relationship listening, people are at cross-purposes. The talker wants to be listened to but the listener thinks the talker wants a problem solved. Problem-solving may follow a listening session, but the two are very different.
The cross-purposes can be rectified by the talker saying I need you to just listen, not problem-solve or by the listener asking do you want me to help solve a problem or just listen?
Listening is helpful even if problems remain unsolved. It builds trust and connection. This may be the only tangible outcome in relationship listening, but that’s what you want, right? In relationship listening one person shares thoughts and feelings just to be understood and accepted. It’s tough to change from being a problem solver to being a listener, but the end gains are enormous.
After my outburst Christian was quiet for a while then said,
“So, you really care about Alisha, but you need to get work done, so you feel stuck. ... That’s hard.”
He had finally put his listening ears on. I felt an immediate release of tension. There were deeper things I needed to share; so now I could.
“Yes. ... It’s all really hard” I replied.
A few tears rolled down my cheeks as a tight knot inside began to unravel.
Christian just listened.
Listened to the exhaustion in my voice.
Listened to the hurt underneath my words.
Listened to my cry for just a little understanding.
Listening is a language of love.
Christian's new book "listen (how to)" has just been released! You can order it on our "books" page.
“Six white boomers!” I started singing at the top of my voice. Yes, Australia has its own Christmas carols about Santa being pulled by 6 big old man kangaroos called boomers. Christian gave me “a look” and continued to play the introduction on the piano.
“What?” I said.
“You came in early” he whispered, and smiled.
Starting a song early is fine, even when you are leading the singing for 33 people in a small intimate setting. Everybody finds where the beat is, finds the rhythm and gets into harmony somehow automatically.
Each year we sing carols around our piano with old friends and new. It’s our Christmas. We decorate the house. There is a lot of joy, laughter, noise and gingerbread. Red and white wine and our secret recipe punch are obligatory.
I love this day. I love lying under the tree and staring at the lights through the branches. I love baking and icing cookies. I love the laughter that fills the house as we set up the chairs, light the candles and hang the wreath on the door. In 30 degrees Celsius.
Each year we ask guests to recall a memory of Christmas. This year, most people shared beautiful, loving stories. But there were sadder memories. As we went around the group, we heard stories of loved ones that have passed on, tough battles with health issues, separations. Big things. Some only shared a few words, but the weight of pain behind their Christmas-season mask was heartbreaking.
Just as physical pain seems to increase at night, emotional pain is more acute during Christmas. As I listened to the stories, I felt humbled that I am allowed to feel such joy while there is so much anguish. I like getting things perfect and I like entertaining, but here I was, confronted by some Christmas realities. I remembered that two of our regular singers could not join us this year. The tunes evoked too many painful feelings. Music can do that. It can by-pass the brain and overwhelm the heart.
At least a dozen people that night told us how much they miss community singing. They get to do it once a year, only at our carols.
The next song was Oh Holy Night sung beautifully as a solo. I just listened. I let the music wash over me.
Music touches the real self. Music heals wounds. I looked at those around me and watched the transformation on faces as people listened. Listened deeply.
After the song, Christian and I just looked at each other. We were thinking the same thing. He hears so many stories of pain at Christmas. But the true song of Christmas is bittersweet. It contains joy amidst stories of heartache.
I’d like to offer you another gift that doesn’t cost anything.
Take a moment away from the ads that command your attention and to-do lists that scream at you, and listen to the words and music of your favourite Christmas carol.
If you listen closely, you just might hear the angels sing.
We would love to hear why a Christmas song is special to you.
Please share this with us by leaving a comment.
Welcome to our blog. Each blog contains an insight into your relationship and how to mend or grow it drawn from Christian's 18 years of clinical experience working in psychiatry. They are told as stories. The central ideas are in bold. All the pictures are originals. We post every fortnight and would love to hear your comments. Looking forward to travelling with you in this amazing journey called life.