By Gill Seaton-Jardine, Counsellor/Psychotherapist
In my last article, I looked at isolation and some of its likely effects. As we enter into a new year, I hear echoes of new year resolutions from the ‘big night’. Apart from the obvious, to lose weight, to give up smoking, to give up alcohol, we might also be aiming to spend more time with family and friends and, part of that aim might be to ease feelings of isolation. However, do we need more time with friends and family to achieve this aim? Will it work? I think that might depend on what we are looking for from each relationship, and more intricately, from each conversation. I find myself wondering why we haven’t been engaging with our friends and family as much as we think we’d like, (since the lockdown rules have eased) and what perhaps holds us back sometimes from engaging in conversation. I wonder if it’s about the tricky world of versions and realities?
What do I mean by this? As you may well be aware, if you listen to the same story from three different people, there will be differences in what each one reports, even if they have apparently experienced the same event. There may be difference in cause, in emphasis, in intention, in effect, in seriousness. How can this be when we have heard that they all experienced the same event? Well, I suggest it is because of the phenomenon of individual reality leading to individual version. Of course, there are a host of influencing factors here like age, gender, sexuality, state of health, type of work, family relationships, culture, religion and these are before we get to values and beliefs. You begin to see now why this is a complex concept to unravel in a meaningful way.
There is only one way to understand another person’s reality and that is to listen to them, and I mean really listen. In the word of counselling, we talk of ‘active listening’. What we mean by that is not only listening to the words, but listening to the tone, looking at the facial expressions, noting the body language and even how they are sitting. All these give information about that person’s experience. Listening is a skill and, as with any skill, it needs practise. The world is very busy and noisy making it hard to really listen and even harder to actually hear. We listen to our mobile phones, our televisions, our social media notifications, in fact, everything except each other! In order to really ‘hear’ each other, all else needs to be quiet. The good news is that we are all capable of developing and enhancing this skill, as I said, it just needs practise.
So who are we going to listen to? I mentioned earlier friends and family. Most of us have some friends or family members that we have to approach with care. It might sound surprising for me to say we have friends like this but do you not have the friend with whom you need to avoid certain subjects? Do you not have friends that you need to keep apart? Do you not have a friend that gets upset easily so you tread carefully? In all these cases, we are trying to avoid a fall out and we do that by treading carefully. If we go charging in upsetting them, we may lose that connection and if we lose enough connections, we are well on our way to isolation. The truth is, we really don’t know the details of their life. How things have affected, and are affecting them, just as they don’t know our own reality.
People can be very quick to decide who is right and who, or what is wrong and, in doing so, shut down a conversation. In most conversations, opinions are shared and argued. This can be a healthy situation if each party listens to the other and their point of view. If, however, they talk over each other, start to raise voices and accuse the other of talking total rubbish and being completely wrong, the conversation will break down leaving a negative atmosphere and probably bad feeling. Clearly a person who is constantly argumentative is going to end up with no-one to talk to and hence isolated. It can be very helpful to include another option here and that is to agree to disagree. Conversations with this option can be both enjoyable and progressive with views shared both ways. This can lead to a shift on the part of either party, or both or no change at all but increased information on the subject which can’t be a bad thing.
So, how do we get better at listening and therefore understanding each other? In my practice, I often recommend family or couple ‘meetings’ which I mentioned before in my article Relationships & the Pandemic back in early 2021. It sounds very formal but to put time on one side to listen and talk to each other undisturbed can be hugely helpful. A regular time and day is decided and booked in the diary. Everybody is invited to contribute, yes even the little ones, we will likely all have something we would like to discuss with the other members such as bedtimes, mealtimes, family rules, date nights for couples etc. I suggest that everybody has a drink and perhaps a small snack to bring to the table. All distractions are turned off such as mobiles, televisions, radios etc. so that everyone can concentrate on the matter in hand. I’m often asked how do you start and I suggest by inviting each person to simply say ‘hi’ and the chatting will soon get going. One important rule is that only one person talks at a time, otherwise the listening part soon disappears. You can use a soft toy or pillow that the person talking can hold to indicate it is their turn. Over my career I have found that this technique can really can make a difference to the people involved and the relationships within a household.
So, we started talking about versions and realities. Being aware of these two concepts can help us all in how we approach other people. Demonstrating respect for someone else’s perceived experience will be enormously helpful to that person and they will delight in being allowed to be who they really are. It may be useful for you to give some thought to your own versions and realities and where they have come from. This way you can develop a better understanding of yourself. This can only support your confidence in being who you are and allowing others the same comfort.