Communication Skills: Listening for the New

I just came back to work after dinner, where, over roast chicken and salad, my wife began to explain to me why some people try too hard.

I felt obliged to listen, but I was also tired, and had consumed enough wine to permit myself to disengage and become impatient.  I waved my hand and said, “You’re losing me!”  She had hurt feelings.

Part of the problem was that the topic (“people who try too hard”) is a recurring interest of hers, and I automatically leapt to the conclusion that I was about to hear the same story I’ve heard for many years.

But in the spirit of full disclosure,  like many husbands, I am a selective listener.  If I’m reading, or watching TV, or thinking about something else, and my wife speaks to me, I am mindful of my tendency to listen for a split second, conclude that whatever she’s saying is not all that important, and throw up a smokescreen of grunts and nods while I turn off my ears.

This is not good for our marriage, and I sense  she has learned how to do the same thing to me–listen for a few seconds, generate a hypothesis about what I’m saying, and conclude that it’s a re-run that she doesn’t want to sit through.

One explanation for this state of affairs is that we are, in fact, repeating ourselves, (thematically if not with the exact same words) and that we are now able to predict what the other person is going to say.

Because what we are saying is predictable, we don’t pay much attention.  There’s nothing new coming out of our mouths–no new thoughts, no radical new insights–and so nothing much of interest.

We know how to fix this.  Skilled in effective dialogue, we will say to each other, “We need new thoughts, new experiences, new growth.  Let’s make it happen.”   And we will.  We will go to the theater, on trips, on vacations, engage in new activities with new people.   We will grow and prosper.

But when that’s over, we’ll have to get down to the real work: the cultivation of curiosity–about eachother–without judgment.

I can hear us talking about that now.   I will say, predictably quoting Steven Covey, “We must first seek to understand, then to be understood,” and then I predict she will roll her eyes as if to say, “Not that old chestnut!”

And then we’ll really be up against it, and have to be still–still as water–until we get curiouser and curiouser.



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