There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
A few years ago I was seeing a young woman called Grace who had autism. Her mother complained to me about the problems they had communicating. She was getting frustrated by a simple, repeated miscommunication. Every day she picked her daughter up from school, and every day she would ask after her day. Every day she was met by a baffling silence.
There were only two people in the car, yet Grace never replied to her mother unless she phrased the question in a particular way:
“Grace, how has your day gone?”
Without the cue of her name, Grace did not realise that she was being spoken to, and would sit in the passenger seat wondering why her mother was talking to herself.
My partner also gets frustrated with me when there is a breakdown in our communication. She will be adamant that she has told me something, only for me to look bemused and puzzled. The problem is that she often tells me things when I am doing something else, and if I am reading a bomb could go off behind me and I would not notice.
I have tried to explain that communication is a two-way street. It does not just involve talking. It also involves listening to make sure that the words have actually been heard, and that they mean the same thing to both parties.
A conversation involves taking turns and carrying out three tasks.
Each activity is performed in its turn, and is a separate activity. Listening, and doing so actively, involves asking clarifying questions and then paraphrasing what we have heard to ensure that the information received was the information that was intended to be communicated. This is important, for it is very easy for a message to become garbled when we hear what we think was said without checking our understanding.
Conversation is one area where the clutter in our minds can become very obvious. There are several reasons why we may not hear what was said.
- We may respond out of past experience – perhaps reacting to our boss as though they were a neglectful parent.
- We may be too busy thinking about what we will say in response. Replying to what we think was said without checking first.
- Our emotional state may cloud our hearing and trigger an inappropriate response.
- We may be too intent on showing off our own knowledge and expertise to listen.
When we respond in this way we can put our attention on the wrong thing, and fail to focus on the real matter in hand. When we respond in this way it is a recipe for misunderstanding.
Our minds can be cluttered by our opinions, many of which are second-hand, things we picked up along the way as we grew up. These beliefs often provide the background to our understanding of how the world works – usually without any attempt to test their truth. In this state we can become too preoccupied with how we can make our point of view known.
We function best when we expose ourselves to regular feedback about our world and our place in it. We can challenge ourselves by listening to the noise our inner world and developing self feedback, giving ourselves permission not to have to know.
When we listen, we should put aside whatever comes into our mind until we have finished listening, and have listened carefully. When we listen carefully the other person will feel heard and understood, active listening requires that we clarify with the other person precisely what they are trying to say, paraphrasing and feeding back our understanding of what has been said is a major part of this active listening process.
Once we are sure that the other party to the conversation has finished talking, and that we understand what is being said, we can start to formulate our answer. Any genuine conversation has to be a two-way process, in which each party takes it in turn to talk and listen, a little like a tennis match except the intent in this case is not to win but to understand and learn.
Just because someone holds a different opinion to our own does not mean that they are wrong and we are right. The conversation will be more interesting and constructive for both parties when we take the time to explore each other’s knowledge, opinions and views. Taking the opportunity to discuss any differences so that a mutual understanding of what has been discussed is reached. Sometimes an agreement to disagree may be the appropriate outcome.
We will never persuade anyone to listen to our point of view by arguing and fighting with them. If we take time to explain our point of view and how we reached it, and then listen to their world view in turn, we stand some chance of achieving a meeting of minds. If we can leave aside our knowledge and opinions for a while, we will generate a shared mental space where mutual understanding can arise.
When we listen with the intent of understanding another’s world view we are able to start the process of decluttering our mind by challenging our own views, or at least taking the opportunity to organise our thoughts and opinions in a more useful way.
When we are open to new information and other ways of seeing the world, then we can live with greater freedom. Having an inquisitive mind, one that is open to new experiences gives us a greater opportunity to live a more creative and happier life, one that is not curtailed by the limits of our horizons.
As Hamlet pointed out to his friend, there are things in the world that lie outside the envelope of our imagination.
We can only hope to expand the limits of our world by giving our imagination enough new knowledge to dream of wonders.