By Lakota Grace Baker
Have you ever seen a litter of puppies freed from the confines of the nesting box? They aren’t paying much attention to anything but the ultimate goal. They dive and tumble all over each other in the mad rush for the food dish.
Social conversation is a lot like that. It is a fast paced, social free-for-all, with constant interruptions, cross talking, dominance by tone and volume. It can be fun. But if you listen to WHAT is being said, it is largely surface, not complex or deep.
Intimate conversation, on the other hand, is much different. The pace is slower with more eye contact. Silences are longer. Questions are more thoughtful. A relationship deepens in the space of a few moments.
It’s not hard to become an expert listener. Try these simple techniques:
1. Become comfortable with silence. Ask a question, and then pause for the answer. Don’t restate the question, ask it another way, or jump in with your own personal comments. The norm in intimate conversation is taking turns, not dominance. So give your partner the space to think.
2. Clear the mind of ego chatter. It has become an ingrained habit since childhood to assume that we won’t get ours unless our demand is placed out there FIRST. But when that happens we really don’t listen, but are intent upon what WE are going to share next.
For example, remember when you were in grade school, forced to listen to the drone of the teacher’s voice, hour after hour? You couldn’t WAIT for that golden moment when finally the teacher asked, “who knows the answer” and a zillion hands when up. Or when you were out in gym waiting for the trampoline and the instructor asked, “Who wants to go first?” and you tried to outshout the others with “Me, me, me!”
As an adult, when you can stifle this initial impulse, you are able to give your partner the best gift ever—your undivided attention.
4. Ask open ended questions to deepen their story. Remember, in a way, you are training your speaker to become a better story teller, to entertain YOU. So ask questions that make your speaker think a bit.
Rather than a question they can answer with a simple yes or no, start your question with “How did you…” or “What happened then…”
In this way, the tale becomes a co-creation of the two of you.
5. Listen for emotional expressions to deepen the story line. Counselors get big bucks for doing this one basic process. Listen to the feeling words in the story. “I was so FRUSTRATED that I…” or “I just LOVED it when…” “I was SO embarrassed…”
Then, all you have to do is thoughtfully repeat the word and then ask for more: “frustrated…tell me about it.”
6. Ask sensory questions. Get them to remember the colors, shapes, textures, smells, sounds.
Doing so gives them a chance to remember what happened in all its glorious detail and allows you to experience vicariously in their moment.
7. Vary your opening question. Asking “Tell me about your day” or “What happened to you?” is about as successful as trying to open up a conversation with your teenager!
Starting a conversation in the same way is like making love in the same position, time after time. Doesn’t take long before the action is perfunctory and the pleasure is transitory at best.
We once knew how to listen. Primitive peoples knew that their very existence might depend upon paying attention to whether the crackle in the bush was a peaceful badger or a restless panther.
In fact, some believe that early people listened much and spoke little—that they could almost read each other’s minds without words.
And what could be more intimate than that?