When Conversation does not Exist
Why would anyone not have time to have a conversation with their children or their spouse? What is an appropriate conversation anyway?
A conversation implies interest. How was work today? Anything interesting happen at school? What's happening with the Garden Club? How was your day?
Once there is an opening, normal chatty conversation should proceed. Although coaxing is often required. Now if you have displayed interest the other party should want to talk about their day, or the soccer game, or the pat on the back they got at work, or a million other possibilities. Once conversation has begun, listening is required. Its a kind of trade. I listen to you, really listen without my own internal conversation going amuck in my head. And then when appropriate, the other person ask me a question, "enough about me how was your day?" Then it is your turn. If you are lucky the other person will then listen, really listen.
Real conversation employs the skills of a quiet mind, paying attention, letting go of our own internal chatter, and the power of listening. What you are doing is acknowledging the value of another person. What they do, how they feel, what happened to them is important to you. They are important. This exchange is actually quite complex, but we do not need to concern ourselves with all of the underlying currents. In a conversation all you need to do is acknowledge the other person, whoever they are, and hopefully be acknowledged. Implicit in any listening is approval. This is approval at a deeper level than just smoozing them. Believe it or not the other person feels acknowledged as a real, important human being. Whether 6 or eighty, frail or strong, successful or struggling, this acknowledgement harmonizes directly with who they are.
My own worst trait in a conversation is when the conversation turns to problem areas. If I am not the source of the problem I often stumble into fix it mode. I start asking questions, offering suggestions. I have genuine concern, but this is the last thing I should be doing. Remember listening? That means keeping my mouth shut unless directly asked for my input. I am getting better but still catch myself from time to time. Nothing shuts down talking about problem areas faster than unasked for questions or solutions. This especially applies to adult/child conversations.
Then what is the vacuum? Everything said so far is pretty normal and acceptable. It is the way we operate in healthy relationships.
The Vacuum. Nothing is going on. The room is empty, the conversation is empty. Interest in listening is absent, interest in talking is absent. Emails are more important, going out to play is more important, busyness of any kind is more important than the dreaded conversation.
"How was your day?" (reading the paper), "ok", turning on the news. Picking up child from school, "how was school today?" "Ok" (ipod come out, ear pieces go in, the child quickly isolates themselves).
"Hey turn that off, you want me to take that away from you?" "You want to stop for an ice cream cone?" "Whatever" "That's not nice, I just asked how your day went." "ok I guess, can I listen to my music now?"
The dreaded conversation, separation, isolate, ignore. The Vacuum. How did we get here, how do we change this?
The Shift in Attitude
We arrive at an impasse because at some point in time we shifted from genuine listener to opinionated fixers, to judgemental responders, to distracted (you are not important enough for me to pay attention to). Once this message has been sent and received it is easy to reenforce it. From the initial dismissal (hurt feelings, disappointment) the child, spouse or even friend becomes guarded at first and then just doesn't want to play anymore.
Spouses and children retreat into their own world. When pushed, anger abounds. When really challenged running away is better than the fight. Remember children have only a small amount of power. Their best use of that power is to insult you and run away (to their own little cave if they have one). I believe with a little reflection it is easy to see how we slip into disapproval mode or distracted mode. Once established that this is how we are relating (not in a good way) to our spouse or child, the conflict begins and does not end. Changing this way of communicating, the resultant attitudes, and beginning a more genuine relationship takes a little work, and a great deal of humble honesty.
The Public Apology
When you are trying to change direction in how you relate to another person, the subtle approach is not always effective. However, the non-subtle approach requires that you are committed to a serious change. This means you understand what has happened and you know what to do on your part to help correct the impressions you have made.
If you are really aware of how you migrated into this situation with a child, spouse or friend, then the public apology is a good place to start. It must be direct, humble and genuine. And the other party or parties must be given time to see your change in behavior (i.e. your willingness to listen).
If all of this seems too dramatic and too staged, If this approach demands too much from your Ego then do not do it. It only works if you have met the above conditions. It is true the slow approach can show change very effectively but it does require that you handle the initial rebuffs with patience and gentleness.
The net result is you learn to listen. You learn to contribute your own story only as appropriate. You learn not to walk over another's conversation. You pay attention when your child has something to say.
I realize this is unbelievably simple. Well, acknowledging another person is simple, it is effective, and it shows genuine caring. Being in the moment, being aware is what allows this level of recognition. There is an important human being in front of you, a human being that deserves your undivided attention.