More Than Words: The Art Of Communication

How to become a better communicator with the art of listening.

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How to become a better communicator with the art of listening.


More Than Words: The Art Of Communication

How to become a better communicator with the art of listening.

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Conversation is, of course, talking to each other. When you meet someone, what do you think about if not what to say? Most people get very good at making conversation and slip easily into a ‘public’ mode of small talk and other exchanges suitable for particular occasions, but it’s simplistic to describe conversation as straightforward talking.

For a start, people often don’t say what they mean; in fact, quite often through embarrassment or fear they can lead you away from what they really mean. There’s much going on under the surface.

What people don’t say when they talk to each other is as important, and probably more so, than what they do say. A response such as ‘I don’t know’, delivered in a flat voice, is as likely to mean, ‘I don’t care, I’m angry and you don’t understand me’ as to be a simple assertion of lack of knowledge.

This is why the right-brain’s ability to pick up tone, inflection, metaphor and symbol, humour and paradox, is so important. When someone with left-brain confidence quotes someone’s words as proof of something, they are leaving out the bigger part of meaning.

The media, politicians, and business grandees do this all the time: ‘I believe that in 1962 you said . . . ’. It’s important to realise that while actual words are mainly the province of the left-brain, most other elements of communication – including meaning, inference, intention, context, tone, facial expression, gesture, humour, irony and metaphor – are the province of the right-brain. What you are always speaks louder than what you say.

The novelist Peter Carey suggested that the declared meaning of a spoken sentence is only its overcoat, and that the real meaning lies underneath its scarves and buttons. The quality of your thoughts and feelings has an impact on the other person, whatever words you use.

Sometimes, the apparent subject of a conversation is not even the real subject of the conversation, and both parties in some bit of themselves know it.

You might have an end of life conversation with someone, and you talk about whether the pillow is comfortable, and whether sleep is hard to achieve, yet the whole conversation is a way of saying, ‘I love you’, and the other person, without remarking on the fact, hears this simply and directly.

If you were a fly on the wall to this conversation, you would read the real meaning in the tone of voice, the look in the eyes, and many other tiny cues. Sometimes, language is symbolic, and what needs to be said can find expression only in images.

Stillness and silence

Besides, much happens between words. As in music, the silences between sounds are as significant as the sounds themselves. In conversation, silences are full of meaning.

Good coaches, teachers, and counsellors know that they can be too good at asking questions and keeping the flow of conversation going. Leaving a silence allows the other person space and sometimes produces a revelation.

I once listened to someone tell me about her problem for 10 or 15 minutes. At the end of that time, she thanked me warmly. ‘I now know exactly what to do’, she said. I hadn’t said a single word. But I had been listening.

I’m not saying that my listening solved her problem, but it was the catalyst that helped her unconscious to solve her problem. It is said that the sculptor Michelangelo could already see the finished form of his work in a block of stone, and his job was to release it. As catalyst, you allow the other person to release an answer that is already there for them to find.

When you listen to information and not the silence, you miss the quality of being in the space. You think that things need to happen, that you need to do something, when in the silence what you need is already present.

Rumi wrote in one of his Discourses: ‘Speech is always within you whether you actually speak or not, even if you have no thought of speaking.’ We influence each other by what we don’t say. Inside my head I can be angry about a relationship – completely! – or I can be happy and loving and grateful for it; my perception changes everything.

Most of us think that such thoughts remain in our heads, but because we are always communicating, our silence communicates as loudly as our words. Some part of the other person’s consciousness has an inkling of what is going on inside our head.

When you allow silence, you expand possibilities. At first it can feel awkward. As soon as there is a pause in conversation you may be tempted to rush into words to fill the gap. But if you can just be with the silence, this is where communion starts.

Allow the pause and wait for words to come if they want to. When you become comfortable with silence, idle chatter seems empty and futile. People who have been on a silent retreat often remark upon return to normal life that much conversation now feels pointless or superfluous.

Silence, like stillness, is full of movement. Even when still and quiet, you are always breathing. I think of a tower that naturally sways slightly at the top; were you to force it to be still the rigidity would be injurious to the structure.

So too with silence: when the Buddha is sitting in still and silent meditation, there is a dance of consciousness within. The still point is nothing but the centre of a dance or the eye of a storm. A propeller spins at great speed and appears still: all movement, yet all stillness.

In silence and stillness, your body expresses more than words ever can – deep truths that have no language.

You might think that a silent listener contributes little, but silent attention is all that is needed. W. B. Yeats wrote in The Celtic Twilight that ‘we can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet’.

This is an edited extract from The Art of Communication: How to be Authentic, Lead Others and Create Strong Connections, by Judy Apps (published by Capstone, April 2019).

Judy Apps created and developed Voice of Influence, an approach to speaking and communication that unravels the secrets of how the most authentic leaders communicate and inspire.

A published author of five books on communication, she teaches Voice of Influence courses and delivers keynote presentations as well as coaching people from all walks of life – from corporate leaders to politicians, journalists and all who want to connect with more influence.

She has a profound understanding of communication and uses a whole mind-body approach that’s deeply effective, enabling people to achieve great leaps in their communication, confidence and business success.

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More Than Words: The Art Of Communication

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