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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

You Talking' to Me? A Workshop in Whole Listening

By Shel Horowitz

Deborah Lubar has a recipe to make you a better listener…a better supervisor…better at dealing with cranky customers…better at working out problems with other family members in your business-and it's probably not the recipe you've heard before.

Lubar, a Vermont-based actor and healer who once chaired the theater department at Smith College, came to the Family Business Center September 14 with an unusual approach to communication skills. No talk of I-messages, synchronized breathing, or the other standard items in the Communication Guru's Toolbox that many speakers have introduced to Family Business Center members.

For Lubar, the key is something completely different: making space and time to meet your own physical, emotional, and psychological needs. Reduce the stress in your own life, and you'll be better able to hear others.

Lubar sees three groups of stressors that make it hard for us to truly listen:

  1. An educational system that discourages listening: students wave their hands excitedly when they have an answer, and focus so much on attracting the teacher's attention that they don't absorb what the speaker ahead of them is saying. And those students who'd rather cogitate and carefully think about an answer are often not heard at all.
  2. A visually overstimulating, constantly noisy culture that puts a value on being ultra-busy, that sees a crammed calendar and a high stress level as signs of accomplishment. "We tend to believe people are not doing their job unless they're really stressed out. We push and push and push ourselves. We don't feel that time is abundant. I left Smith because I was living in insanity. If your appointment book was totally full, they'd think you were an important person. If you meditate or read a novel, you're not working up to par. I looked at myself walking down the street (demonstrates bent posture and a shuffling step)-I walked as if I was 110 years old!
  3. The human tendency to get defensive and shut others out when a message is perceived as threatening-such as a CEO's response to a child who suggest that the parent retire and make room for the next generation.

Lubar compared the pressures of modern life to driving a narrow road, hemmed in by concrete construction barriers-except that a driver slows down for construction, but we speed up in response to the pressures on our lives.

How can we listen better-or learn to hold our ground if we're not being listened to? Are there tools a salesperson can use when prospects shuffle, look away, clear their throats, and study their watches? What's Lubar's antidoe to all this stress? "Stillness. Silence. Spaciousness."

Look for places to breathe, to relax, to let go of the next five things crowding into your mind. Whether you snatch a few sections before a tough meeting or find an hour to walk in the woods, letting go of the constant push-however briefly-can free you to listen attentively, be listened to more effectively, and accomplish more as you work with others. Lubar suggests imagining roots coming out of your feet and down into the earth-and breathing all the way into the abdomen, instead of just into the upper chest. Focus not on the past or the future, but on the here and now. Avoid the "drunken monkey mind" that jumps constantly from one tree limb to another, never stopping to savor the moment.

These are all steps in healing from the daily stress-but healing, she says, is not an attitude of 'I'm going to fix this.' Rather, it's about opening up to what needs to happen.

And as far as listening goes-remember that it's not just about the words. "Listen beyond the words, to the music, texture, silences, and body language. Pretend you'll be asked to tell this person's story-in the first person," as if you were telling it about yourself. Don't approach this task with sarcasm or trying to be "a cheap imitation" of the storyteller, but with an open heart.

When we feel heard, Lubar said, we expand, become "bigger, fuller brighter. You can fill this ballroom. If you've been humiliated, you feel little, you contract, don't even want to be seen." We all notice those energy patterns; they're part of the quick judgments we make when meeting someone new: this is someone I'd like to be friends with, this is someone I don't even want to be in the same room as me.

What if you're the speaker and you don't feel like the other person is really listening? Ask for the space you need: "Could you hear me out? Give me just three minutes." Or ask to breathe together for a moment before you start a tense conversation. "People will think you're a New Age flake," but you may achieve amazing results. "If you have the guts, try it!"

For Lubar, used to the arts and academe, addressing a group of business people was, in fact, a big stress; she was worried that she'd be perceived as too New Age. "I know zip about business-and the idea of working with my family-I was filled with horror. You do an extraordinary thing; I take my hat off to you." When she expressed her nervousness to a friend, she got this response: "You've been hauled in by the KGB in the Soviet Union, stoned by Arabs in the Middle East…and you're nervous about speaking to the Family Business Center?"

She needn't have worried; her presentation was enthusiastically received, and many participants got visibly involved in the various exercises she led. But her discomfort demonstrated some of her principles: that we approach life with our own agendas and points of view, but that we can lay those burdens aside, and learn "to listen with our hearts, bodies, flow of energy, our spirits which identify something deep inside the other person. We can listen with our entire selves.

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