Family: the original gift, like it or not. My sister and I named ourselves the “news, sports and weather family” since we had perfected the art of not talking about emotions, differences or potentially conflictual topics. We replaced open dialogue with silence, daily activity reports, getting things done, or worse yet, arguing. We were an intelligent, talented, hard-working family with parents from different cultures and dramatically different points of view. Self-understanding, presence and conversation skills would have made for more joy a lot earlier than we finally found it. Even as a teen I wondered . . .
How can we have conversations that are more curious and less instructive,
more appreciative and less judgmental, more flexible and less fearful?
How can we let our guard down, name what is happening and
find solutions that are satisfying for all of us?
3 Steps to Improved Communication Skills
Step 1: Build Emotional Sturdiness
Stretch your comfort zone. Break old patterns. Say ‘yes’ to opportunities. Learn new things. Build trust in yourself as you strengthen your emotional capacity to listen, speak, create, succeed, fail, give, receive, lead. There will be moments of awkwardness, but you’ll survive them and with humility and good-heartedness they can even be endearing. You’ll likely wish for a few ‘do-overs’ too, but you will grow. Step one, live your life beyond what you already know.
Step 2: Understand Self & Others
Endless personal questions: Why do I do what I do? What motivates each of us to be so different in how we communicate, lead and interact in relationships? What are my gifts and challenges? And yours, too. How can I be more accepting of myself and others? How might acceptance, appreciation and knowing more about how to meet you where you are impact our relationships at home and at work? Would we be happier and more productive?
One of my favorite resources is the Enneagram. It’s helped me be more compassionate, appreciate differences, and relate more effectively. Step two, know thyself. Appreciate. Diversify. Respond, not react. Communicate in ways that make sense to the receiver.
Step 3: Develop Communication Skills
Expand your conversation toolkit beyond news, sports, weather and the 140 character comment to include how to: listen and ask genuine questions to have a conversation that’s rich with curiosity and connection; unlock stuck conversations through mutual understanding; feel more grounded in your own voice; communicate across different cultures, personalities and contexts, and develop everyday tools to resolve or transform conflict. Check out workshops at Public Conversations Project in Boston.
Step three, deepen and diversify your communication skills. Practice every day.
All of the sudden, Dad's faux gruff curmudgeon look softened and a huge smile spread across his face as he said, "And look how much joy you've brought in such a short time!"
My heart nearly pounded out of my chest that morning. I'll never forget his words, and that we arrived there simply by my choosing to 'be present’. Dad died suddenly several months later. I never saw him again after that moment of joy in the doorway. Thank heaven we chose as we did. It was joy enough to last a lifetime and beyond.
When I was little my grandmother and I would sit at her kitchen table and drink big mugs of hot tea and dunk a few delights from the classic flip top box of Little Debby’s Donuts. One day she asked, “How are you?” and in an instant, even then, young as I was, I knew she actually wanted to know. It was shocking. Someone asked and actually wanted to know! No pat answers. No rushing. Nothing required. I doubt I put much thought into my response, but the gift she gave me that day has lasted a lifetime: the gift of authentic presence.
How did she demonstrate presence? How did she develop it? What impact did she have?
Gram simply sat with me that day, her body at ease, doing nothing else. I felt like her mind was alert yet quiet, as though she had spread out a blanket for us to be simply together. Time seemed to stand still. It was soothing. I felt held, down to the core of my inner self.
Gram’s presence wasn’t the result of education, self help books, or communication training. It was natural. She was a strong, loving woman from Czechoslovakia with a sixth grade education. She had lived a difficult, unprivileged life - an immigrant at age 13 with rudimentary language skills who lived through world wars and the Depression with a husband who was both deeply generous and alcoholic, and who died soon after their children were grown.
Maybe Gram was born with innate presence. Maybe it grew out of the need to hold herself steady and remain open-hearted through life’s highs and lows. She had likely practiced presence so many times for herself that it was simply part of who she was. Someone who was here in the now. Noticing what is without judgment. Quietly aware of nuance. Someone at ease in her own skin.
Presence helps us listen, learn, and help one other. It’s the foundation of communication and relationship, the root of helping people discover themselves, couples defining partnership, families navigating life together, friends being there for each other, governments making quality decisions and businesses making ethical choices. It’s the root of communities growing together.
Every day I hesitate or struggle, but each time I refocus on presence, being here now with an open heart, my mind quiet yet alert, I calm down and orient myself to move forward. In a nanosecond I recall the feeling my grandmother gave me so long ago when she asked ‘how are you’ and actually wanted to know. Her way reminds me what a lasting big impact we have on each other, likely when we least realize it. Presence: the gift we can give ourselves and one another. The gift that keeps on giving.
Kathy is a leadership coach, psychotherapist & organizational consultant. She integrates a deep background in business, psychology & energy to help people lead a happy, productive life that contributes meaningfully to the world around them.