Saturday, April 12, 2014

LISTENING: Encoding and Decoding

The other day, I received a call from an old friend whom I had not heard from in ages, 10 years to be exact.

“Hi there,” he said. How are you?” I might have detected a snicker in his voice over the telephone. The conversation was the usual, hello and then to the point; he and his wife wanted to meet with me and my wife for dinner. I promised I would text him back about the time and date for dinner. The “snicker” what about the snicker, you ask? I don’t know but I felt it. Okay well maybe because a few years ago after a similar invitation we were asked to loan him a reasonably large sum of money (my perspective)  for an enterprise he had embarked upon. Since then, I had not heard from him and never received a call back after my three futile attempts.

"The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.".- Rachel Naomi Remen

What was he up to? (my inner voice) Should I even broach the subject with my wife? I can just see her reaction now. “What? No!”

How did he put it, “Hi there!” How is that for a reintroduction with a lot of money owed? Maybe, he thought, I would have forgotten that by now and maybe he was trying to reestablish the friendship? Maybe, but not likely!

When I introduced the subject of dinner with my wife, her response was predictable. But then that tiny little wrinkle above her nose made me realize her gears in her brain were shifting and a new thought was a runaway process. Like interpersonal communication is a complex process, so is thought and bias and assumptions. 

What was the code in that telephone call? I really did not know. But my decoding mechanism was in full swing. What was his real intention and what was I thinking was his intention? I could not really tell. My assumptions were based on a past experience from a few years ago, even though a bad one at that. Could I put a positive spin in my own mind and reframe the conversation so that I did not see him as Darth Vader?

My wife answered my thoughts almost immediately, “You know Jim might have been through hell in the past ten years. He was after all one of your better friends. So he deserves a friendly night out. We won’t bring up the subject about the money, unless he does, right?” She was clearly more empathetic than I was in my own mind. She opined further, “I can see you are still upset, based on the wringing and un-wringing of your hands.” She put her hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, “Maybe he just wants to say hello and rekindle the friendship. Other than the money issue, there was never a bad word spoken between either of you, Right?” She was right again. And then she said, “Besides how can we know his intent by what he said over the telephone? Meeting him in person is the right thing to do.”
She was right of course… (empathy is not sympathy).

I call him religious who understands the suffering of others. - Mahatma Ghandi
I had been arguing mentally, creating a mountain the size of K2 in my head, all from the shimmering of a mental bias that would not quit chattering inside my head! There might have been nothing further implied, except a renewal of a friendship. As far as the money was concerned, my wife and I had both written it off in our minds. So the only argument that kept nagging at us, was what if he asked for more? Would I be able to say no? My wife answered the question easily, “We can simply tell them the truth that we do not have the financial capacity to honor any further requests.” Truthful and quite simple!

It was a darker than usual evening without the moon as we walked into the restaurant. Jim and his wife were already at the table. He reached out with a smile and gave us both a hug. His wife followed his queue, both faces in full bloom.  “God it is great to see you both. I was half afraid you might decline.”

“Why would we? We are friends after all.” I replied trying my false airs of magnanimity. He was comfortable, loose and kept his focus on both of us, shifting his gaze from one to the other. My internals were warring inside, “here it comes.” Or “here comes something!” But nothing came. We had a pleasant dinner.

Soon the incipient breezes of comfort and the past carefree lives we had spent together as friends washed the last ten years of dispute  away and all four of us were smiling laughing and crying over jokes, and he is a great joke-ster. Soon the veil of bias and intent gave way to empathy and understanding. The focus from negativity to assimilated positivism, the mental arguments dissipated and the bias oozed out of the circle of friendship, judgment gave way to the meaning of friendship. It was a wonderful reunion!

It was time to head back to our homes. Just before we were ready to leave, Jim pulled out an envelope and asked me to open it. In it was a check for an amount far greater than I had given to him. “That is for the loan and the interest on it.”

There was a snicker in whose mind?

Who was listening and not managing his filters?

Was I listening? Or was I bending to the whims of my bias?

Was I talking in my own head and not giving “listening” a chance?

I was all that and more. My wife deserves the credit for that reunion, as she does in most cases related to social analytic concepts, which come easy to women, I realize. I try not to anymore, but I know I still do and the battle continues to subvert the voice inside.

...but for a chance to LISTEN... as listening is not the same as HEARING...

The friendship has moved along at a pace that it would have been without the ten year interruption. Jim was prosperous, is an understatement. He often asks if he can help me in any way. So much for intent! The difficult times seemed to have made him tougher, better, stronger and more productive. He gives us credit all the time, but we all know better.
Time Spent Communicating
A 'pie in pie' chart to show the significance of listening. (c)2012
"70% of our time is spent communicating and of that 45% is spent listening and 30% is spent talking." Adler, R. Rosenfeld, L and Proctor, R. (2001) Interplay: the process of interpersonal communication (8th. edition). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt.

"Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn." - Alice Miller.

I would venture that 70% of clinical diagnoses would be established without a drop of blood being drawn through effective listening by the physicians! And an equal number of disputes could be resolved through the simple act of using both the ears rather than exercising the might of one tongue!

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