Four Ways to Nurture A Relationship

In a recent post I wrote about criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling that kills relationships. In contrast the following four principles invite trust and two way communication:

  1. Keeping Our Commitments: Steven R. Covey says that  when you want to build your own character, the very first thing you do is to make a commitment and keep it. Promise keeping builds trust–we are doing what we said we would do. It is a very powerful way to build relationships.

2. Empathic Listening: My daughter told me a few years ago that I needed to stop putting words in her mouth. She explained that when she paused, I would jump in and say things I thought she was going to say. I felt wounded initially when she said that. I thought I was really, really listening, so much so that I was with her, concentrating on each sentence she was saying! And–it was wonderful feedback. 

I realized later I was on the fourth level of listening, as Stephen R. Covey says in The 7th Habits of Highly Effective People. He explains five levels of listening:

  1. Ignoring another person who is talking to us–smartphones make this really easy. 
  2.  Pretending to listen, “Yeah, uh-huh, right.”
  3.  Selective listening– hearing only certain parts of the conversation.
  4.  Attentive listening where we are paying attention and focusing energy on the words that are being said. 

But very few of us ever practice the 5th level, the highest form of listening, empathic listening.

Steven R. Covey continues:

“Empathic listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.”

“The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.”

“Empathic listening involves much more than registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said. Communications experts estimate, in fact, that only 10 percent of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is representative by our sounds, and 60 percent by our body language. In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also , more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel. “

An example of empathic listening is when we moved to Belgium in 1998. It was a culture shock for me,  because I didn’t speak French. This stress showed up for me with  my children’s school where I couldn’t talk to the teachers or understand the notes they were sending  me,  and going grocery shopping where it was 20 francs to rent a shopping cart. I was darned if I was going to pay to use a cart when I was already buying from the store. What I didn’t understand is you put in the coin and when you returned the cart you got your money back. Until I understood this,  I carried my groceries through the store, trying to manage feeding a family of 7 in that way. Unbelievable.

The final straw came when I couldn’t get a plumber to hook up our washer and dryer for three weeks! Laundry started piling up with our large family. Craig was busy with work. He was  sympathetic but–busy with work.  Finally, my overwhelmed self just stopped and  stayed in bed for three days. I gave in, and threw in the towel.  Craig said, “I don’t understand! We have moved so many times–you are world-class  at moving!” When he finally stopped, and  “listened with (his) ears… listened with (his) eyes and with (his) heart” and  switched to empathic listening it changed everything. He  could finally understand why this international move was so different and difficult for me.  I finally  felt he truly understood my pain. He committed and joined with me to make things work and I  could get out of bed.

Another obstacle we found is when my husband and I were hammering out  our communication style  together, I would be upset about something and want to tell him about it. He would go into “fix-it” mode. Finally one day, I realized I just wanted him to listen. I just wanted to vent. If I could vent, I would feel better and I could usually figure out a pathway through whatever the challenge was. He learned to say, “Do you want me to fix it, or are you just venting?” I could stop, think and give him the answer.  It was a real breakthrough for us.  I just wanted him really, really listen.

Elder Marvin J. Ashton gave a wonderful talk that being a good listener is an incredible spiritual gift. We see that example in Jesus– He not only listened but he was completely with the person he was talking to, He was never in a hurry and they could feel His love and concern. 

Our last two principles?

3. Steady Compassion: This wonderful ability shows up when we can see people as they really are. Compassion means that we can see other people’s suffering and feel their pain. It means our hearts are open and loving and we are looking for their  strengths instead of weaknesses.  

4. Completely Honest: In this age of widespread fraud and deception, telling the truth is an incredible character trait. When we tell the truth consistently, people learn to trust us and respect us. Jodi Hildebradt, a therapist, once told me that when we can tell the truth to someone about how they  are negatively  affecting us, it is not being mean to them but being merciful. When we can give honest feedback, then they can begin to change for the better. This is a skill I am working on continuously because it is scary to give feedback to someone who is prickly.

This is a life-long endeavor for us. It takes insight and work to steadily get better at these principles. We have to be willing to receive honest feedback. As we model these principles for our children it will prepare them for life in being a great marriage partner and in their work. Best of all, they will be very loving and accessible to their children. I can’t think of a better reason to lift ourselves with these principles–future generations practicing loving communication.

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