Both of my teenage sons are musically accomplished. One could say that they have a natural bent toward musicianship, clearly passed down from their mother and not from the parent writing this blog. They also have a passion for music. Neither inclination nor passion alone, however, explain my oldest son’s expertise with the violin or my youngest’s with the cello. They are good at their chosen instruments because they put in practice. Behind each capable playing of beautiful music lies hours and hours of careful attention to scales, proper finger work, bow handling, and music mindfulness.
This practice never ends. It is said that “practice makes perfect,” and, since my boys have not perfected their instruments, they will continue to practice as long as they wish to pursue their musical passions.
If we are passionate about relationships—if we value to love others well—how much is this desire reflected in our practice, in our commitments to hone our skills at loving well? Specifically, since good communication is at the heart of most relationships, how willing are we to practice the skills and postures necessary to communicate in healthy, compassionate, honest ways?
I admit that, the more I learn about healthy communication—its critical importance and its many pitfalls—the more I realize I need to attend regularly to this art at the center of human connection. Below are a few practices I continue to work on and would encourage for anyone hoping to strengthen their ability to love through communication:
Practice eye contact. Shakespeare said that “the eyes are the window to your soul,” and, in my experience, this basic but challenging practice invites connection, intimacy, and vulnerability before a single word is spoken. When I look into your eyes to listen to what you are saying or to share my thoughts with you, my body language says that I am interested and attentive to the person in front of me.
Practice affirmation and encouragement. Say things which build people up. Sure, there is a dark side where our affirmations become empty, vague, or even manipulative. Nevertheless, I believe in practicing affirmation liberally, working to be authentic, creative, and specific as much as possible when I encourage or thank another. In a world full of cruel and critical talk, I want to flood the airwaves with kindness and affirmation. If we do this regularly and well—with discernment and integrity—then we set a positive foundation for times when harder conversations enter our relationships.
Practice listening. Perhaps there is no more critical communication skill than listening well. Listening is more than not talking. It’s more than eye contact (see above) and head nodding. Deep listening requires the art of letting go—letting go of our agendas, our assessments, our solutions, and our clever comebacks. There’s a time for each of these responses, but when our responses dominate our consciousness, there’s little room left in our thinking simply to receive what the other is saying. How often, when we are “listening” to someone else, are we actually cooking up what we will say next instead of truly being present and connected to that person? For me, learning to set aside what I want to “add on” to someone else’s words this is the practice of listening I continue to work on most.
Practice asking good questions. Hand in hand with good listening is learning to ask powerful questions, which, more often than not, should be concise and open-ended. Moreover, where possible, practice variety and creativity. “How was school today?” is a better question, being open-ended and inviting more sharing, than “Was school good?” And “What was something new you learned?” is perhaps even better in that it has more creativity, inviting more reflection and sharing.
Practice honest, nonjudgmental self-expression. Acknowledge your observations, feelings, needs, and requests without judging (either yourself or other persons). It is remarkable how much of our communication involves judgment or evaluation. The art of compassionate (or nonviolent) communication (based on the research of Marshall Rosenberg and offered in a class through Integer South Africa) invites us to move away from speaking what we see is “wrong” with others or ourselves and instead to move toward owning our difficult feelings, unmet needs, and requests for support that rest at the heart of actual or potential conflict.
I could mention other practices, but I hope that these give you food for thought. As with any work, take your time and offer yourself grace as you navigate the ever-present but incredibly complex art of communication. As with my boys’ musicianship, it’s always a work in progress. What a gift, however, we give ourselves and others when we begin to use our words, our listening, and our body language in ways that promote connection and health.