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Have you ever been verbally dressed-down for the way you communicate in a relationship?
She looked me right in the eyes and said,
“Seth, you’re smart, brilliant even. But most of the time you’re not here. You listen, you process, but you’re not here. You have all these projects and things you keep streaming through your mind that I sometimes doubt if I’m even breaking into the top ten. When do I get a moment of just you? When will you read between the lines of what I’m saying like you do with everybody else?”
She wasn’t screaming or even raising her voice. She gave examples of past situations that backed up her point.
“I don’t know what it all means or what you can do. I just wanted you to know how I feel.” She finished.
I felt like a man, facing a table covered with his own internal organs, wondering what to put back first and where. I promised to have something coherent to say in an hour and headed to the gym.
I come up with my best ideas and most efficient solutions during or just after a hard workout. If you happened to be enjoying a late-night workout at the Dover, NH, Planet Fitness, and wondered what the tall blonde dude was doing running on a treadmill with tears in his eyes, now you know. Nothing came to me that night, though. Just a few words I wrote on a scrap of paper and lodged into a corner of the bathroom mirror as I left early the next morning.
“Will you help me listen?”
Think back to some recent interactions you’ve had with the people you really care about;
- When you ask “how are you”, are you truly ready to listen and continue the conversation or are you simply asking to get a formality out of the way? If you’re not interested or you don’t have time, don’t ask the question.
- When you listen, are you making an effort to read between the lines of what is being said? If she says “wow, my ex is such a bastard” do you catch that she probably doesn’t want to actually talk about her ex but would really appreciate some affirmation? When she says “the kids were really crabby all day” do you catch that she’s actually saying “wow, it’d be really awesome if you washed the dishes”? As you make a habit of being present in conversations, reading between the lines will get easier. You’ll know when she actually wants you to talk about the ex or put the kids up for adoption.
- Are you empathetic? Amazingly enough, this doesn’t mean you burst into tears whenever anybody is having a bad day. Having empathy means that you celebrate the triumphs and mourn the failures of another as much as you would your own. When she makes an absolute fool of herself at the kareoke bar, celebrate the nerve it took for her to sing in public. When she makes an effort to reach out to you, do you value the effort and ignore the bits she might have done differently?
Being present is something I have to work at every day. I don’t think it will be something I can ever look at and say “wow, I’m absolutely an expert at that”. It’s a process that develops over time and changes with each new person who walks into my life. It’s an adventure. I stumble a bit at times, but I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by very patient people. Everybody tends to be a bit more patient when they know you’re trying your hardest to make things work.
Perhaps that’s the trick to it all?
The following evening I walked into the bathroom to wash my hands before dinner. The note was still there, with an addition:
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I will.”
Can you beat that?
I’d be very interested in any suggestions you might have as to tricks you’ve discovered that allow you to improve your ability to be present in relationships. Leave a comment with your hot tip! =)
photo credit: kalandrakas