The Most Precious Gift

Offering your presence

by Catriona Rogers

listening

Some years ago, I participated in a summer camp for teens, held here in Hong Kong, and one day was allocated for focusing on relationship. In an exercise the teens were invited to write a letter to their parents, saying whatever they always wanted to say but never had the courage to actually say it.

That evening an invitation was extended to those who wanted to share with the large group the letters they had written.

The message of the majority of the letters was: "I don't want another expensive holiday. I don't want an expensive gift. I don't want a meal in an expensive restaurant. All I want is time with you".

Hong Kong is a very busy and highly stressful city that places many demands, both work and social, on everyone. This makes time a very precious commodity. It means we often 'multi-task,' and are rarely fully 100% present in the moment. Yet, what our loved ones, our friends, our colleagues, most want from us is our full presence—the most precious gift we can offer them.

Do you know how to offer your presence to someone? Or is your body there, but your mind elsewhere, absorbed perhaps in thinking about other things that seem important, and demand your attention? Do you 'half listen', blackberry in hand, sending a text? Do you try to read and listen at the same time? Or do you attempt to engage in important discussions while you are driving?

When doing two (or more!) activities simultaneously, you cannot focus fully on either and when you are listening to someone who is important to you, if you are doing something else as well, you miss the opportunity for real communication.

When you are present, focused, and able to listen deeply, the other person feels acknowledged, heard, and connected. This is particularly true in the case of children, who need to be acknowledged in this way to develop their self-esteem.

Deep, active listening is a practice and a skill that is important to master!

How often does something happen in your day to upset you, at work, at home, or in a social setting? You try to share it with a friend. How do they respond?

Do they, deny what you are feeling and tell you not to worry about it, that it can't be that bad? Or do they philosophise and tell you nothing in the world is perfect? Do they give you advice and tell you what they would do in the circumstances? Do they inundate you with questions? Do they defend the person or situation which has upset you? Do they offer you pity? Do they attempt amateur psychoanalysis?

Or are they able to listen deeply, empathise and tune in to your feelings? And when they do this, do you begin to feel less upset? Do you feel heard, acknowledged, understood, that they know what you are going through? And are you then more able to cope on your own with your feelings and the problem?

To be a good husband, wife, parent, colleague, you need to practice the language of acceptance and empathy. This means listening with full attention, acknowledging feelings with an affirmation like "Mmmmn, I see........".

It helps, when someone is in the middle of a situation with feelings riding high, to give the feelings a name: "That sounds frustrating...... And it may mean simply listening in silence. Often all someone needs is a empathetic, non-judgmental silence, the silence of acceptance and understanding.

There is a direct connection between how we feel and how we behave, and this is especially true for children. When kids feel right, they will behave right. So how do we help them feel right? By accepting their feelings! This is something many parents are not skilled in doing. "You don't really feel that way". "There is no reason to be so upset." The steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids. It also teaches them not to know what their feelings are—not to trust them.

You may be saying to yourself, "Easier said than done". How can I do this? How do I develop these skills?"

You start with intention. You will, for sure, become distracted, but intention can bring you back on course. You need to be aware of yourself: your feelings and thoughts. You become aware of your non-presence. Then, being mindful of this, engage in the simple practice of focusing on your breath. Three deep breaths can bring your mind home to your body. It only takes two seconds!

When you are grounded in your body through focusing on your breath, your thoughts no longer have the same hold, and their ability to distract you diminishes. You are then able to experience being fully present in yourself, look into the eyes of the other, and offer them your presence. Do it with a glad heart and watch your relationships blossom!

Summer holidays are coming up. This is an opportunity to spend time with your loved ones, to practice deep active listening, empathy and acceptance. Make sure you offer them the most precious of all gifts—your presence.

Active Listening Skills

Listening skills fuel our social, emotional and professional success, and studies prove that listening is a skill we can learn.

Listening makes our loved ones feel worthy, appreciated, interesting, and respected. When we listen, we foster the skill in others by acting as a model for positive, effective communication.

In our love relationships, greater communication brings greater intimacy. Parents listening to their kids helps build their self-esteem. In the business world, listening saves time and money by preventing misunderstandings. And we always learn more when we listen than when we talk.

The Technique

To know how to listen to someone else, think about how you would want to be listened to. It might take some practice to develop (or re-develop) the skills. Here's what good listeners know—and you should, too:

  1. Face the speaker. Sit up straight or lean forward slightly to show your attentiveness through body language.

  2. Maintain eye contact, to the degree that you all remain comfortable.

  3. Minimize external distractions. Turn off the TV. Put down your mobile phone, book or magazine, and ask the speaker and other listeners to do the same.

  4. Respond appropriately to show that you understand. Murmur ("uh-huh" and "um-hmm") and nod. Say words such as "Really," "Interesting," as well as more direct prompts: "What did you do then?" and "What did she say?"

  5. Focus solely on what the speaker is saying. Try not to think about what you are going to say next. Allow the speaker to make their point.

  6. Minimize internal distractions. If your own thoughts keep flooding your mind, simply let them go and continuously re-focus your attention on the speaker, much as you would during meditation.

  7. Keep an open mind. Wait until the speaker is finished before deciding that you disagree. Try not to make assumptions about what the speaker is thinking.

  8. Avoid letting the speaker know how you handled a similar situation. Unless they specifically ask for advice, assume they just need to talk it out.

  9. Even if the speaker is launching a complaint against you, wait until they finish to defend yourself. The speaker will feel as though their point had been made. They won't feel the need to repeat it, and you'll know the whole argument before you respond. Research shows that, on average, we can hear four times faster than we can talk, so we have the ability to sort ideas as they come in...and be ready for more.

  10. Engage yourself. Ask questions for clarification, but, once again, wait until the speaker has finished. That way, you won't interrupt their train of thought. After you ask questions, paraphrase their point to make sure you didn't misunderstand. Start with: "So you're saying..."

As you work on developing your listening skills, when there is a natural pause in the conversation you may wonder what should you say next. Learn to settle into the silence and use it to better understand all points of view.

Ironically, as your listening skills improve, so will your aptitude for conversation!

To learn more about Active Listening, click here.

References:

Faber, Adele & Mazlish, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk.

Thich Nhat Hahn Body and Mind Are One 8 week webinar on Sounds True.

Catriona Rogers, Counsellor and Psychotherapist, works with clients and their issues using strengths based approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Psychology and Mindfulness practices (MBCT).

IMI offers Mindfulness Training in a group session on Monday evenings, led by Leonie S.The Most Precious Gift