The other day I was thinking and realized 90% of the work I do is getting one person to listen to what another person has to say. In fact, my role is to listen and be 150% present to those individuals, couples, and families that seek my help. In my decades of experience, I’ve found that the root of many issues is people not listening to each other.
Do you ever not listen to what your loved one or family member has to say? Why is that? According to Kate Murphy, “there is an in unconscious tendency to tune out those that are close to you because you think you already know what they are going to say.”
I realize that with my own loved ones I am guilty of this; sometimes I do not listen as I think I already know what they are going to say. Then I learned something incredibly paradoxical – that is the “closer we feel towards someone, the less likely we are to listen carefully to them over time.” It’s called the closeness communication bias and it causes incredible strain on relationships, often causing them to implode.
Murphy posits that once you know people well enough to feel close you think you know what they are going to say. This leads you to tune them out when they are actually speaking. It’s like driving the same route over and over; you know it so well you don’t notice signposts or scenery anymore.
Just last week I recognized the closeness communication bias operating with many of the individuals, couples, and families I work with each day. It was nearly impossible for a mom to see her sweet son was vaping and using drugs; that he was not attending school and doing thing she could never imagined. For her, he was her special boy and what was transpiring out of her sight was impossible to fathom. We often call that denial. Yet, another way of looking at it is that we just do not hear the signs.
Similarly, I have had the opportunity to work with families who did not see their husband, wife, mother, father, sister, or brother change before their eyes .
“Your not listening! Let me finish! That’s not what I said!” were amongst the most common refrains Kate Murphy heard in close relationships after “I love you.”
Listening and accurately understanding what someone is saying requires hitting pause. It means taking a second to check and ask “is this what the person really said?” When we don’t listen we often get it wrong.
This week I did a listening exercise with clients in a behavioral health center. We discussed how listening involves our hearts our ears, our eyes, our race , our body language, etc. Participants were paired up in dyads and asked first to listen with their eyes as the other person shared with only their eyes how they were feeling today. After that, they were asked “how are you” and the other person would just listen for two minutes and then reflect back on what they heard. Finally, the pairs would switch roles and repeat this process.
If we don’t listen to one another even in close relationships, perhaps this explains how relationships fall apart and why we keep secrets from each other. The Harvard sociologist Mario L. Small found that more people confided their most pressing issues and worrisome concerns to folks they had weaker ties to then those they are close to. In many respects, that may explain why clients so often readily share their problems with clinicians, or as research has shown, even their hairdresser or barber or in one of the 368 different kinds of self- help groups that exist.
Sometimes people avoid telling those they are close to as they fear judgement, drama, criticism. When someone outside our circle listens, he or she is not necessarily better. Rather, he or she may ask better questions, be more attentive, or are just less likely to interrupt and move on. Maybe our spouse (mother, daughter, friend, etc) is attached to a digital device while we are speaking; or multi- tasking and while they may be physically present, they are emotionally unintentionally unavailable.
What can one do about this closeness – communication bias? The solution is so simple and yet so hard: Just Listen – Be Present!
I was hearkened back to a talk I gave a few years ago titled, Being Present How is Your Heart Today? influenced by the iconic Jewish writer, Philip Roth, in Portnoy’s Complaint as well as the head of Islamic studies at Duke University. Both pondered the same phenomenon. When asked “how are you today?” They suggested to stop, pause and be present.
Try this today with someone close to you: Put your hand on their arm, look them in the eye, and connect with them for one second. Tell them something about your heart, and awaken their heart. Help them remember that they too are a full and complete human being, a human being who also craves a human touch.
Metaphorically, let’s stop, pause, reflect and take a good hard look at how we listen. I know the person on the other side will be compassionately surprised and humbled.