Talk To Me

IMG_0237When I was a freshman in college, I became good friends with a young woman who was a Christian Scientist.  We would spend hours talking to each other about anything and everything, including religion.  She once told me that she had never felt so free to discuss her religious beliefs with anyone before, and I felt exactly the same way.  Which may seem a bit odd, because I’m not a Christian Scientist.

I think what made our discussions, and even our friendship, work was the way we talked to each other.  We expressed our own feelings and beliefs, honestly and openly, and then really listened to what the other person had to say.  She didn’t try to change my mind and I didn’t try to change hers.  But I learned a lot from those long talks with my friend, because they forced me to think about just why I agreed with her on some points and disagreed on others.  In other words, she challenged me to really examine just exactly what I believed, and why.

My friend transferred to another college after her freshman year, and we gradually lost touch with each other.  But the lesson I learned from her has stuck with me.  I think of it every time I watch a political debate, read about a religious war, or even just scroll through the news feed on my Facebook page and see all the petty sniping and bickering.  Because here’s the thing:  if you really want someone to listen to your point of view, you need to talk to them.  Not lecture them, or ridicule them, or attack them….just talk to them.  The way you would want someone to talk to you.

Somewhere along the way, it seems that many of us have forgotten how to do that.  We seem to think it’s our duty to point out other people’s faults, usually in a way that degrades them and allows us to feel superior.  While we can do that if we want, it’s not at all an effective way to get our point across.  And as a method for changing someone’s heart and mind, it’s a complete failure.

I know I’m lucky, because I still have a few friends I can talk to, openly and honestly, about anything at all…..even those “hot button” subjects like religion or politics.  We manage it the same way my old college friend and I did, by speaking from our hearts and  listening respectfully to what the other person has to say.  We always say “I disagree” rather than “you’re wrong.”

Sometimes I change my mind after one of our discussions, and sometimes I don’t, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they give me some insight into a different perspective, and they leave me feeling that my voice has also been heard.  And that always reminds that good things can happen when people simply talk to each other.

Beyond Words

One of the first things I learned when I began volunteering at a local animal shelter was the importance of communicating without words.  Because dogs can’t talk, and a rescue dog who has lived its whole life without much human contact can’t understand what my words mean.  The dog can only “read” my body language and respond to the tone of my voice, which means I have to be intentional about the wordless messages I’m sending.  And really, that applies with my human interactions as well.

I was in a deli one day and the man who took my order made a little small talk while he was preparing my sandwich.  When he handed it over to me he paused, and then said, “I’m sorry if I offended you, ma’am.”  Surprised, I assured him that he hadn’t.  It wasn’t till much later that I realized that I was probably scowling at him the whole time he was talking, not because of what he was saying, but because I had a horrible sinus headache at the time.   If anything, I was the one who was being offensive.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been had my feelings hurt when I’m feeling down because it seemed as if my friends and family were avoiding me like the plague just when I needed them most.  It took me years to realize that was likely because when I’m feeling that way, I’m usually sending off a distinct “leave me alone” vibe.  I may have been thinking, “Please come cheer me up,” but the message people were getting was “Stay away from me!”

It’s not easy for me to pay attention to, much less control, all the non-verbal ways I communicate with others.  It’s hard not to scowl when my head is pounding, or to be friendly and engaging when I’m feeling worried or depressed.  Sadly, I have a face that others can “read like a book,” which means that if I’m thinking about something that is upsetting me, I’m going to look angry.  Even when I’m not the slightest bit angry at the person who happens to be standing right in front of me.

But if I can manage to control the “vibes” I’m sending off when I deal with the shelter dogs, surely I can figure out a way to do that with people, too.  Especially since most of the people I interact with do understand my words, and I don’t need to rely on body language and tone of voice to get my message across.  I need to remember to speak up and actually tell people what I’m feeling, which is so much better than, say, trying to smile when I’m feeling badly, either physically or emotionally.

IMG_0448It’s so easy to misunderstand each other, especially when we’re preoccupied or upset, and to be disappointed when others aren’t responding to us the way we want them to respond.  And those are the times when I’m grateful for the lessons that the shelter dogs have taught me, which is that I need to be very intentional about what kind of message I’m sending out, either with or without my words.  Because I’ve found that once others understand what I really mean, their response is often just exactly what I need.

Quiet Time

Earlier this year, I came down with a bad cold that seemed to concentrate in my throat and eventually caused me to lose my voice altogether.  The doctor told me to rest my voice as much as possible, which essentially meant that I shouldn’t talk unless I absolutely had to for the next few days.  I’m the sort of person who usually has a lot to say, but luckily the laryngitis made it so difficult to talk that staying silent turned out to be much easier than I had thought.  And the added bonus was that I learned a few things during that time I was required to keep my big mouth (mostly) shut.

The first thing I learned is that sometimes it’s best to pretend not to notice certain things, like, say, how very happy my husband looked when he heard that the doctor had told me to quit talking for a couple of days.  I could have pondered on just why he seemed to believe my laryngitis was such good news for him, but I decided it was probably in the best interest of our marriage if I didn’t go too far down that particular road.

The second thing I learned is that it’s so much easier to listen to someone, and I mean really listen to what someone is saying, when I know that I’m not going to have to say anything back.  Because usually when someone is talking to me, a part of me is listening and another part of me is already thinking about how I’m going to respond.  Which means that I’m only giving that person  part of my attention.  And it’s so much easier to understand someone else’s point of view when we actually shut up long enough to hear what they’re trying to tell us.

The third (and best) thing I learned is the value of silence.  Once I was in the position of having to decide whether or not saying something was worth the risk to my inflamed vocal cords, I became much more comfortable with not voicing every thought and idea that happened to cross my mind.  I learned how to simply enjoy my own thoughts without always feeling the need to share them with others.  I discovered how nice it can be so simply be with someone and to sit in companionable silence.  Honestly, during the time of my enforced silence I felt calmer and more at peace than I had in a long time.

This is not to say that silence is always a good thing, because obviously it isn’t.  Talking is an important form of communication and one of the main ways we humans connect with each other.  But for someone like me–who tends to talk a little bit too much–learning to be quiet was an enlightening experience.   I hope that I can remember the lessons I learned from being silent and continue to give my mouth a rest from time to time as I move forward.  Because if I do forget, then my only hope will be another case of laryngitis…..

I Meant to Say

I may talk a lot (some would say I talk too much), but clear and effective communication isn’t my strong point.  There are many reasons for this, including the fact that when I get nervous I tend to babble on and on about nothing in particular, and completely skip whatever point I actually wanted to make.  Also, I don’t like conflict, so when I need to say something that might give offense, I tend to circle around the topic so widely that the person I’m talking to has no idea what I really mean.

But perhaps the biggest problem is simply that there is often a big difference between what I think I’m saying and what the person I’m talking to actually hears.  Because all of us have “personal filters” that can unintentionally distort the meaning of what is being said to us, and sometimes words can have different meanings to different people.  And as it turns out, the communication issues aren’t just limited to my dealings with other human beings.

One of the many advantages to having a dog live in the house is that dogs usually serve as an excellent alarm system.  If someone comes to your door, walks across your property, or even just innocently jogs down the street in front of your house, most dogs will let you know about it.  Loudly.  And that can be a good thing, especially if you happen to be home alone.

So when we brought our new dog, Finn, home a few months ago, I told him that one of his duties (aside from keeping the floor free of food and ridding the yard of vermin) was to serve as a watch dog.  And he took me at my word, quite literally.  One night I heard strange sounds coming from outside our front door and went downstairs to investigate.  Finn was already there, sitting nearby and watching intently as a stranger repeatedly tried to unlock the door and open it.  Luckily, it turned out to be a harmless young woman who was simply at the wrong house, but I still would have appreciated a woof or two out of Finn.  Clearly, I should have asked him to be an “alarm dog” rather than a “watch dog.”  (Although he is very good at watching.  Trust me on this.)

I suppose the lesson in all of this is that I need to remember that effective communication isn’t something I can ever take for granted.  Finn’s interpretation of being a watch dog is a great example of how easily our words and meanings can be misunderstood by others, and how we really do need to be a bit more forgiving when others don’t respond the way we would wish.  Actions and words that we are so quick to take offense at are often the result of nothing more than a simple miscommunication, I think.

fullsizeoutput_53ddSo I will try harder to make myself as clear as I possibly can, whether I’m talking to someone who walks on two legs or four.  Which means I might just have a shot at getting Finn to finally understand that the wading pool in the back yard is actually for my grandson….

Be Still

I’m an introvert, but that doesn’t mean I’m actually a quiet person.  The fact that I’m an introvert simply means that I need a certain amount of time by myself each day, and that I can get a little cranky when I don’t get that alone time.  But stick me in a group of people, and my mouth tends to go into overdrive.  It doesn’t even matter if I don’t have something that I especially want to say, I’ll still chatter away until the people around me are beginning to think that they might like a little alone time themselves.

Part of the problem is that when I get nervous, I tend to start rambling on about anything that pops into my head.  But the biggest reason I sometimes talk too much is my long-standing, but misguided, belief that I am somehow responsible for making sure that everyone around me is okay, and that it’s my job to fix their problems if they aren’t.  That’s the reason that I sometimes jump into conversations that aren’t really any of my business, and offer solutions that no one asked for.  It’s annoying, I know, and I’m working hard to stop it.

Breaking old habits isn’t easy, but I am making progress.  Slowly but surely, I’m learning that there are many, many times when the best thing I can do is keep my big mouth shut and just listen.  Listen as someone else talks about their life, their problems, their grief, or whatever they happen to be dealing with at the moment, because that’s their time to talk and not mine.  They aren’t expecting me to fix their problems or take away their grief, they just need a sympathetic ear as they work through their own thoughts and emotions.

Don’t get me wrong, wanting to help other people is a good thing.  And when I’m busy telling people what they ought to do or how they should deal with a particular problem, my heart really is in the right place.  The problem is, I’m not actually helping.  Unless someone has specifically asked for my advice, I need to assume that they don’t really want or need it.  Sometimes the help we want to give and the help that other people need to receive are two different things.

There are words that we can offer that will always be welcomed, and when in doubt, it’s best to stick with those.  Words of compassion and encouragement, such as “I’m so sorry this happened” or “I’ll be here for you” are good.  Once when I was fretting about an upcoming oral surgery, I had a friend look me in the eye and simply say, “You’ve got this.”  Just knowing she had confidence in my ability to cope helped enormously.

IMG_4496So I will continue to work on reining in my tendency to talk when it would be far better to remain silent, and to choose my words carefully when I do speak up.  Because sometimes the best thing to be is simply…..quiet.

Just Say It

478While I was on vacation a few weeks ago, I wandered into a clothing store and had just begun to look through the racks when my cell phone rang.  Not wanting to be rude, I stepped just outside to take the call, standing with my back to the store.  As I was talking, I heard a loud click behind me, but I didn’t realize what it meant until I finished the call and tried to go back inside.  The door was now locked.  I could see the clerk through the glass door, doing her best to look busy over by the register and deliberately not looking in my direction.  I was only on the phone for a minute, but apparently that was all the time she needed to and lock me out.

Fuming, I checked the hours posted next to the door, and realized that the store was scheduled to close in ten minutes.  I’m guessing the clerk was afraid I was going to take an armful of clothes into the dressing room and force her to stay open while I tried them on, which is why she grabbed the chance to lock me out.  But it would have been so much better if she had just told me the store would be closing soon when I first walked in.  That, I would have understood.  And I wouldn’t have been standing on the sidewalk in front of her store, thinking distinctly unkind thoughts about sneaky little sales clerks, and vowing never to shop there again.

Believe me, I struggle with speaking up just as much as everyone else, particularly when I’m not sure how what I have to say is going to be received.  I have wimped out and kept my mouth shut more times than I can count.  But in almost every case where I’ve done that, I’ve ended up being sorry in the end.  Either my silence has led to an awkward misunderstanding, or I have ended up feeling rather bitter and angry because someone else doesn’t understand what I haven’t bothered to tell them.  But when I find the nerve to say the stuff that’s hard to say, I’m at least opening the door for a chance at real communication and understanding.

It helps to remember how much I appreciate it when someone is brave enough to speak up to me.  The other night, my husband and I were driving home from dinner at our favorite restaurant when the manager called.  He wanted to know if everything was alright with our meal, or if our waiter (who was new) had done anything to offend us.  My husband assured him that everything was great, and asked why he wanted to know.  It turns out, we had accidentally left the waiter a one-dollar tip.  We were so glad that the manager knew us well enough to know we would never do that on purpose, and was willing to call and let us know.  We drove right back to the restaurant and gave the waiter his proper tip, even though the manager said we could just take care of it next time we were in.

I know that these examples are small and personal, but I believe that the practice of speaking honestly and tactfully as much as possible is best in most situations.  I think we owe it to ourselves and to others to find the courage to say what needs to be said.  I’ve heard the old saying, “Silence is Golden,” and there are times when it is.  Hateful, petty and spiteful words are much better left unsaid.  But for everything else, real communication is priceless.

Just Listen

I am fully aware that I talk too much.  I tend to over-explain things, repeating myself as if I don’t trust people to understand what I meant the first time I said it.  When I’m nervous, my go-to response is usually to babble on and on about nothing at all, until the person I’m talking to decides that I’m a complete idiot.  Even worse, when someone tells me about a problem, I barely wait until they stop talking before I start telling them exactly what they should do, completely ignoring the fact that they didn’t actually ask for my advice.  So believe me, I understand how much easier it is to talk than it is to listen.

It’s not that talking itself is such a bad thing.  We all have important information to share, and we all want our stories and opinions to be heard.  Sharing our thoughts and feelings allows other people to get to know who we really are, and it’s an essential part of forming the relationships that all people need.  But all that talking doesn’t do a bit of good if there isn’t anyone who is actually listening.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when I realize that someone isn’t listening to what I’m trying to say to them.  It makes me feel dismissed when someone interrupts a story I’m telling to launch into one of their own.  And it makes me feel diminished when I share something that I think is important and the other person just says, “Uh-huh,” and then brings up a completely different subject.  Nothing says “I don’t care what you have to say,” or even “I don’t care about you,” more effectively than not bothering to listen to someone.  Those kind of conversations don’t exactly build healthy relationships.

Which is what I need to remember the next time someone is talking to me.  Am I giving that person my full attention, and really trying to understand what he or she is saying to me?  Am I bothering to ask a question if I need to in order to make sure I get what they are talking about?  When our conversation is over, will that person feel as if he or she was truly heard?  Or will they feel the way so many of us do these days:  that it would have been just as effective to talk to a brick wall?

I think that talking will always come more naturally to me that listening, but listening has far better results.  Actually, it’s kind of amazing how much I can learn when I shut up and listen for a change.  I get genuine insights into how someone else thinks and feels, and a chance to develop deeper relationships with my friends and family.  I hear new facts and different ideas, and they broaden my horizons considerably.  (Also, the odds of me saying something stupid go way down when I’m not actually talking.)  The perks of listening are bountiful indeed.

I have come to believe that there’s a lot of truth in that old saying, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.”  Because one way or another, it is almost always better to listen than to talk.

Speak For Yourself

One of my many bad habits is spending too much time scrolling through the comment sections on controversial Facebook posts and internet news articles.  I know what I’m going to see will often disgust and anger me, but sometimes I do it anyway, in the vain hope that this time I will finally see some sensible remarks and reasonable arguments.  (I would love to say that this means I’m an optimist, but I think it really just means I’m the sort who tends to repeat her mistakes.)  Still, even bad experiences can be educational and I have learned a thing or two while wading through the muck and mire of on-line commentary.

First and foremost, lots of people simply can’t stand the idea that there are those who disagree with them, on anything, and the very idea of it sends them into a frenzy of self-righteous rage.  Which they then need to express, as often as possible, in case someone missed it the first few dozen times they vented in cyberspace.  The second thing I learned is more subtle, so it took me a while to spot it.  But eventually I noticed that people put way more time and energy discussing what they believe their “enemies” think and feel than they do in expressing their own opinions.

Phrases containing the word “they” dominate the threads, and are inevitably followed by all kinds of nasty statements.  “They” don’t care about the poor; “they” hate America; “they” have no sense of personal responsibility;  and so on and so on.  It doesn’t matter if the people commenting are conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, black or white, urban or rural, they all seem quite sure they know exactly what those “other” people are thinking, and they despise them for it.  Which isn’t exactly a recipe for world peace.

I know that we are living in scary times and that there is much going on around us that can make us feel angry and afraid, and that we all want our voices to be heard.  And we all do have the right to make our voices heard.  But I think that the trick is to stick to expressing our own beliefs rather than trying to put words in other people’s mouths and thoughts in other people’s heads.  Because unless we have asked someone who is different from us what he or she thinks, and then actually listened, really listened, to their answer, the fact is that we don’t have any idea.  I don’t know what your experience is, but whenever someone else tells exactly me what I believe, they are usually wrong.

I think the best thing we can do is voice our own concerns and express our own ideas in the hope that they will make a difference.  And I believe that instead of saying “They believe such and such,” it’s so much more effective to say “I believe in such and such,” because those words communicate rather than alienate.  Mostly, I believe that if we truly want to be a part of fixing this broken world, we need to learn to simply speak for ourselves.

Disconnected

Call me cheap, but on my recent trip to Ireland, I simply turned my phone off rather than risk paying enormous roaming charges while I was out of the country.  Like many people, I’ve grown very dependent on my cell phone, using it for phone calls, emails, texts and even taking and sharing photos.  I was a little nervous about going without my phone for so long  (what if there was an emergency and my family or the dog-sitter needed to reach me?), but my husband did have a phone that he could use to his check emails, and even make a (very expensive) emergency call if necessary.  So, as soon as we boarded the plane for Dublin, I turned off my phone, stuck it in the bottom of my purse, and vowed to just forget about it until I was back home.

I’d like to say that my phone stayed in the bottom of my purse for the entire time I was in Ireland, and that I always gave my full attention to that beautiful and interesting country.  But that wasn’t what happened.  I found myself reaching for it again and again, purely from habit, whenever I had a spare minute or two.  We’d board a train to travel to a new city, and as soon as we had settled into our seats, I’d reach in my purse and pull out my phone.  Then I’d remember that it was off and couldn’t be turned on, and quickly shove it back in my purse, hoping that nobody had noticed what I’d done.  I’d do the same thing when we were seated at a restaurant or pub, waiting for our food to come, and when we returned to our hotel room for a short break from sightseeing.  It was kind of embarrassing.

Eventually, as the week wore on, the fact that I was without a functioning cell phone finally sunk in.  I found myself not reaching for it anymore, or at least not as often.  And gradually, I not only got used to not having my phone turned off, I actually began to enjoy it.  True, my husband and I did exchange a few emails with our son and daughter on his phone (some connections are just too precious to break entirely) but otherwise, I was well and truly out of touch with my normal life connections. And I liked it.

IMG_0292I rediscovered how to just sit still and either think my own thoughts, or pay real attention to what was around me.  I spent the train rides staring out the window at passing countryside, admiring the stone fences, the quaint farmhouses and the little towns we passed through.  When we were stopping back at our hotel to change and rest, I’d actually close my eyes and rest for a few minutes, which did wonders for restoring my energy level.  And while waiting for our food at pubs and restaurants, I listened to the music, if there was any.  If there wasn’t, I spent the time actually talking to my husband, who was sitting so conveniently right across the table. I found myself both living in the moment and truly connecting with my environment, to an extent that I haven’t enjoyed in a long, long time.

Now that I’m back in the states, I have my phone turned back on. My time in Ireland didn’t entirely wean me off my cell phone habit, but it did make me see that I was letting my phone intrude into my personal life far too much.  So I’ve made the promise to myself to leave my phone in my purse, where it belongs, while I’m in the company of people I care about.  And I’ve vowed not to reach for it first thing in the morning, or when I’m just a little bored, or even when I feel conspicuous sitting among a group of people who are all staring at their phones.  Because truly, sometimes it’s better to be disconnected.

But That’s Not What I Meant

When our children were young, my husband and I often struggled to make ends meet on just one income.  As much as I wanted to stay at home with our children, I felt guilty about not working and so I tried to help out by working as a free-lance writer.  I sold a lot of articles to local newspapers and magazines, but I never made much money from any of those sales.  So I was very excited when I signed a contract with a book packager to write a short fantasy novel for an educational publisher for a one-time fee of $2,100.

DSC00181The book was going to be used in high school English classes, even though it was supposed to be written at the fifth-grade reading level.   I had both a word list and a mathematical formula that determined how often the words on the list had to be used in the book, and they wanted the finished manuscript in their offices in a little over three weeks.  It wasn’t easy, but I met the deadline, mailed in my manuscript, and eagerly waited for the first check I had earned from my writing that would actually be in the four digits.

A few weeks after I had thought I would be paid, I was still waiting for my check.  I called the book packager’s office a couple of times to enquire about exactly when I would be receiving my payment, and the answer was always “soon.”  To say I was unhappy would be an understatement.  I was very worked up about the whole situation,  brooding and  fuming,  and often complaining bitterly to my husband.  Finally, he told me to just quit worrying about it.  He was sure that I would be paid eventually, and even if I wasn’t, “It’s not as if that amount of money is actually going to make a big difference.”

I was so stung by that remark that I couldn’t even reply.  I had been so proud of myself for taking on a difficult writing assignment (I had no experience using formulas for word lists or writing fantasy novels) and managing to actually write even a short book in three weeks time while watching two young children.  And although $2,100 is not much for the sale of a book, I had honestly thought it was enough to make a difference in our current household budget.  How dare he just dismiss my hard work?  But I didn’t want to have a big fight, so I just swallowed my pride and pretended that his remark hadn’t cut quite so deeply.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized how completely I had misunderstood my husband’s words.  Even though I what I had heard was that my measly little $2,100 check didn’t mean very much, what he had meant was, “Please stop stressing about getting paid.  It’s making you very unhappy, and it’s not worth it.  That check won’t make or break us financially.  We’re going to be okay.”  I had thought he was being dismissive and unfeeling, while he thought he was being supportive and helpful.

It’s sad how easy it is to misunderstand what people say to us, even when we know someone very well.  I think the problem is that no one, even those closest to us, can ever know exactly what we are thinking and feeling, unless we take the time to tell them.  My husband had no idea how much emotional baggage I had riding on that check (which did eventually arrive), and I had no idea how much my stressing about it was bothering him.

These days I try to take the time to find out what people really mean when they say something that hurts my feelings, because so often that’s all it takes for me to realize that the other person wasn’t trying to be hurtful at all.  And now I realize that I could have avoided a very painful misunderstanding if I had simply asked my husband just exactly what he’d meant when he told me that whether or not I got paid for my book wasn’t that big of a deal…..