Holding my chin while I’m trying to think deeply may not be necessary, but it seems to help.
When I’m trying to listen, on the other hand, shutting my mouth is more than helpful. It’s absolutely essential. So is clearing my mind, and so is focusing my attention – sort of like deep thinking. All that is a lot of work, so we don’t experience a great deal of it around us.
Here is how it works: When I am in conversation and, shutting my mouth, put my hand to my chin, I am signaling my partner in that situation that I am thinking (maybe deeply) and focusing my attention.
If, at the same time, I continue looking at the other person, they will tend to conclude that I am taking them seriously and paying attention to what they’re saying.
It worked both ways. What I did maintained my own attention as it encouraged the other person to continue in the expectation that they would be listened to.
The deeper, lasting effect was to strengthen the relationship between us.
There’s more to it than that, of course. You can’t just stare at someone in an attempt to develop that relationship. You have to say something. When I do, especiallly if I respond substantively to what the person said, I complete what has been a moment of effective listening.
The benefit comes in what you say, and how and when. And, most importantly, why.
Idle, unfocused chatter wastes precious opportunity, and in fact diminishes it. Even informal exchanges with a spouse convey meaning, so they should have intention. This may come off as ridiculous and utterly inappropriate, but it’s not.
I’m thinking of a conversation I had once with a couple who had been married for many years. I was shocked at the way the woman treated her husband. He didn’t say much, just a few mild remarks. Yet, each time he opened his mouth, his wife ferociously ragged his every comment. This in front on me, a stranger. He did not react at all.
I’ve never again seen so negative a relationship, nor one so unbalanced.
I’ve thought about that incident a number of times over the intervening years -- and I’ve paid attention to the behavior of couples.
It’s not unusual for one person to make an idle remark to or about the other person in a critical or insensitive way.
Comments like that usually draw a sharp rebuke, which then occasions a testy exchange – hopefully brief – or a dismissal. One gets the impression that this has happened before. Rarely is there anything like a retraction or apology.
You can assume some angry words are exchanged later when the couple is alone.
Sometimes, if I know the people well enough, I tell them the story about the long-married couple and their fractured relationship. I gently suggest some attention be paid to devoting more time and more words to the love that underlies their being together.
I believe that, if someone doesn’t wake up and correct such corrosive behavior, any couple can descend to a level where respect is stripped away, followed by loss of love.
If we forgo demonstrations of respect toward the people we work with, the minor frictions and collisions of our days can become the dominant elements in our attitudes.
There will be more complaints and accusations, and fewer positive comments and honestly open-ended questions.
What we say and do will sour what we think, and our thoughts will influence our attitudes and the signals that manage our relationships.
Attitudes and relationships develop and change over time, of course, and our own changes often are not at all obvious to us. The incoming signals often can tell us what we’re doing to our relationships.
This is where we need to work on our awareness. The behavior and expressions of our associates are continuously signaling us. People will not always tell us what they’re thinking, even when we ask.