Sunday, January 17, 2010

Words, Meanings & Silence - Pause Mode/Talk Mode

I grew up in a place where there was a lot of masterful verbal jousting that was all tangled up with identity and self worth. Being smart meant being verbal, and proficient at defending a point of view. Sometimes it even seemed that defending a point of view meant more than the point of view itself. It was deemed of some value to interject a challenge point, just for the sake of argument. I recognize this now, after years of feeling inadequate to the task, and then slowly realizing that even my clumsy forays into this behavior were felt by others to be aggressive, or insensitive, even self-aggrandizing with a hurtful net result all around. Even in a court of law where stringent argument is the norm, it is intensely important to listen, to know the larger purpose of what you argue, and to register and monitor the impact of your words.

One of the first tactics to turn this behavior around might be to pause even a few seconds before responding to what someone else says, or, perhaps more importantly, before saying what occurs to you. Give yourself time to remember that every time you speak, you are asking someone else to turn their attention to you. This comes up a lot in my daily life now that everyone has laptops and ipods, whose ubiquitous qualities can make it seem that people are sitting around and available when in fact, they cannot hear you without specifically attending to you. It is a bit like being around people who are hard of hearing; it seems they are present but their attention is actually elsewhere. They must be focused on the interaction or they remain out of the communicating loop. Every comment can have the irritating impact of an interruption unless the receiver is already attentive. It is unrealistic to expect others to be in a constant state of readiness to listen to you.

There is a technique of listening that can help each of us be more sensitive to our own verbal behaviors and our own and the emotional needs of others. This is a form of what is known as "co-listening." It can be quite revealing to take turns listening between friends or lovers without constant reactions. Why do we say "uh hunh" or "word" or "hmmm" in response to another person? Do they need us agreeing, encouraging, sympathizing, corroborating? What if we simply listen reserving our opinion, our assurance, our involvement until we listen to the whole thing they want to say? What if we ask them to clarify if we didn't quite understand what they meant? What if we give our self the time to understand their meanings?

One way of making sure you are actually communicating is to agree that you will interrupt after a couple minutes and say, "Let me see if I am understanding you. I hear you saying...." and repeat to them what you have actually understood them to say. Let them agree that you got it, or correct your understanding, either because they did not say what they meant to say (helping them to clarify their own thoughts), or because you are not quite understanding what they meant (helping you hear them more fully). Then they can proceed. Set a limit, like 10 minutes each. And after listening and getting the message from one side, change roles. You may find that you subtly or dramatically begin to shift towards clarity, simplicity, and purposefulness, internally and externally!

Another amazing way to experience the meaning and value of words, and the emotional load we associate with verbal interaction, is to experiment with silence. It is important to understand that you are trying this in order to be more open and aware of your own inner voice, as well as deepen your understanding of how you use your external voice to communicate to others. In order to really experience silence, pick a day when you will able to choose not to do a lot of interacting rather than simply switching to writing notes or hand gestures as a way of playing at being a mime. Let the day be a quiet one. Let all your loved ones and apartment mates know ahead of time. Choose a day when you do not have to go to work. Preparing and eating breakfast in silence, experience and savor your food. Think your way through your choices in the day, allow yourself to hear the commentary your mind will forward. Watch the parade of feelings that arise, about being silent, about your experiences, about the beauty of the world. Notice what you want to communicate, where the impulses come from, and to whom you would direct your words. Set a time limit to do some journaling, but keep that, too, within strict limits, say half an hour or so. You may find that moving the car or walking the dog, picking up a child from school, listening to music or doing laundry present totally new information.

Keep the whole experience short the first time. You might make yourself a little badge to wear that identifies you with the words "Day of Silence" or some other phrase when you go out in the world, so that others will better understand why you are not responding verbally. I recommend no longer than a 24 hour period for the first time. Silence is a deep experience. Give yourself time to absorb and integrate this before plunging in again. You may well find you hear yourself differently, and that others hear you more clearly as well. You will definitely notice how much the world expects you to interact, and much about your own impulse to jump in.

This is part of who you already are. Paying attention to your way of being in the world can deepen in stages by listening without commentary, pausing before speaking, taking the time to be clear, and learning to hear and understand your own inner voice.

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