August 21, 2017

Relationship Communication: Talk So Others Might Listen

Enriching Relationships:  Wisdom in an Ancient Proverb
Mike McCafferty

An ancient proverb states, “When the student is ready the teacher appears.” It sounds rather profound and seems to make perfect sense. If a student is unwilling to learn, no teacher can make them listen.

With my own children particularly during their adolescent years, it was not uncommon for them to excitedly approach me and explain in excruciating detail, some novel idea. Somehow they failed to attribute this “great idea” to me despite the fact that I’d presented it to them on numerous previous occasions. When I reminded them of these past conversations, they became indignant. “NO way! That was my friend Bill’s idea,” or “I got it from the internet!”

No matter how hard I tried, they simply refused to believe me. So why did this happen? After all, no one loves my kids more than I do. So why were they receptive students when either their friend told them the same thing I had, or they picked it up on their own from the internet. I reluctantly concluded that my frustration had more to do with me than it did with them. While it would be easier (and rather self-serving) to blame them for not listening, I evaluated my role in these situations. Why weren’t they willing to let me be their “teacher”? Hmm?!

Maybe I was preaching at them, or I decided it was critical to discuss my idea just as they were rushing out the door on a date. In that moment I realized no matter how hard I try, I can’t make them receptive. However, I can make it easier for them to listen. So maybe it would be useful to turn that proverb on its head and restate it the following way. “When the teacher is ready, the student appears.” 

This new perspective allows me to take greater responsibility for my role in the communication process. Rather than focusing on my perceived need to tell them something I consider important, regardless of their circumstances, I now consider a variety of elements before approaching someone. These include such things as time and place, my words, tone and body language and most importantly the state of our relationship.

It’s much easier for someone to be receptive, when we have a healthy relationship. Consciously choosing my words, tone and body language, and an appropriate time and place to discuss the matter, substantially increases their motivation to listen. By working on these things, which are within my control, I can further strengthen our relationship and even set the stage for more productive conversations in the future.

So while the ancient proverb, “When the student is ready the teacher appears,” still makes a lot of sense, I believe that my modern restatement, “When the teacher is ready the student appears,” reminds us that we don’t have to wait around for others to somehow become motivated to listen. Instead, when we consciously work on strengthening our relationships and take charge of the communication process, we greatly increase the likelihood that others will listen.

Mike McCafferty is a certified professional coach and licensed professional counselor.  He teaches Resilient Relationships in a Wobbly World at CFU