Guilford Press, New York, N.Y., 2009; $16.95
In a former ministry position, a new boss expressed dissatisfaction with my design for marriage preparation because instead of being purely religious it included communication skills teaching and coaching. “Communication has nothing to do with divorce,” said my boss.
Research by John Gottman, Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, Susan Blumberg and many others show that communication style and how couples argue (more so than what they argue about) is clearly related to marital satisfaction and success. Yet I knew that effective communication with my boss about our differences hinged on artful dialogue, not hard data. Essential to productive dialogue is the art of listening.
“The Lost Art of Listening” is a book for spouses, parents, bosses, employees, colleagues and anyone else who wants to improve the dynamics of a relationship. The book starts with the effects of listening and the consequences of not listening or being heard, and it examines why people do not listen.
Our own needs get in the way of listening, which feels burdensome. Attitudes and unrecognized assumptions prejudice what we hear, and personal history makes us hypersensitive. The art of listening may not so much be lost as unlearned or never practiced.
While the first sections of the book stimulate many insights and offer good tips, the last half really gets at how to listen. It presents specific techniques to overcome personal needs in order to pay attention, understand another point of view and verify understanding. Good examples illustrate how to move past assumptions about what the speaker is going to say so that one can listen openly and with empathy.
Examining the process of communication – self-reflective observation — can be most helpful in becoming a better listener. (“If you don’t listen to yourself, it’s unlikely that anyone else will.”) Since emotional reactivity is the primary block to real listening, the book offers fine advice on how to avoid defensiveness, deal with another person’s anger, listen to criticism and manage self during other difficult situations.
Last, but not least, the book puts listening into the context of different kinds of relationships. Listening between intimate partners requires balancing closeness and distance, along with intimacy and independence. Communication patterns within the family are embedded in the structural system, which involves diads, triangles and boundaries.
Listening to children and teenagers is a challenge for many parents, so “The Lost Art of Listening” addresses parental desires, fears and prohibitions, and also whining, tantrums, teen sensitivity, silent arguing and battles for control. It suggests ways to break out of mutual antagonism and to connect with teens while supporting their need for autonomy. There is also a chapter on communication with friends and workplace colleagues.
This book is full of sage and practical advice honed during the author’s more than three decades as a psychoanalyst and family therapist. Stories and exercises bring the lessons home. Michael Nichols’ voice is human, frequently humorous and always compassionate; he sounds like someone with whom I could enjoy a long conversation.
My copy of the book is full of markers at pages I want to quote, but there is space here for only one more, a paragraph on Page 207 that underscores the author’s appreciation of marriage and all personal relationships as dynamic:
“Maureen viewed her marriage as a predicament, an entity, something with a history, perhaps, but one that after a while takes on a life of its own. Most of us feel this way at times. But a relationship is not a thing, not a static state; it is a process of mutual influence. A relationship isn’t something you have; it’s something you do.”