At this time of year we are often in situations where we are catching up with people we don’t choose to spend time with day to day. For many this is uncomfortable, if not downright undesirable, leading to more stress at a time when all we want to do is unwind. We often find ourselves next to colleagues, our partner’s colleagues, or their partners, or members of our family wondering what on earth to say next.
What if you could turn this into an enriching, uplifting experience? I’m not talking about the usual intoxications that grease the wheels of most social occasions, I’m talking about something really simple that won’t result in a hangover or find you reaching for another substance (which for many who choose to remain sober, or have been elected the sober driver, isn’t an option anyway).
Most of us get anxious just thinking about those initial moments of walking in saying hello. We are often too busy worrying about what we are going to say next and what these others might think of us, that we are not truly present at all. You might find yourself just wishing for the waiter or waitress to come over and distract the attention onto the safer topic of drink or meal choices.
However, if you choose not to focus on yourself at all, and simply be interested in listening to others, it will burst the bubble of anxiety and make your time, life even, much more rewarding. Of course, what is simple is not always easy, but in this case, it’s actually not that hard either. You have all the skills, they might be a bit rusty but they’re there.
This weekend I found myself at my partner’s work’s annual dinner. He has only worked there for a few months and so I hadn’t met anyone. He’s also a tradesman, so in terms of what they do for a living and what I do, on the face of it, it’s completely different.
When we arrived the restaurant was already really busy and there were a few people from our party gathered in the waiting area. Unfortunately the only space to coalesce was seats that were in a long straight line, so it wasn’t really conducive to a conversation of any kind and I could see people were feeling really awkward. Checking whether our table was ready, we decided just to head through and wait there instead, that got the ball rolling.
As it ended up, I had one of my partner’s colleagues on my left and another colleague’s girlfriend on my right. The guy on my left was really interesting, I discovered that (although he’s being doing his trade since leaving school) he was retraining as a counselor in his 50’s. Given my passion for people following their heart, the topic he was retraining in and relative proximity in age, that made our conversation really easy.
The girl on my right was only 18 and fairly shy, but once she knew I was actually interested in what she did and thought, she started to open up. I discovered she had a 7 year old sister that she seemed to really enjoy being around, and I could see her eyes light up when I talked about our two young kids, she had found something to relate to.
If you're not a confident conversationalist, think of some questions to ask in advance as openers to the conversation. If it’s someone you know, you can ask things like “Hey, I’ve never really asked, what do you do in your spare time?” or “I know you have kids, but I’ve never really asked their names, ages, what they do?”. If you don’t know someone the field is wide open: “What do you do?”, “Tell me more”, “What’s the story behind how you two met?” and so on. If you’ve thought about it, even only briefly, once you arrive you’ll be on the front foot. So just smile, dive in, then listen.
To truly listen you have to be able to interpret what is going on within the many levels of a person. For example, there are the verbal cues (what they are saying, what they are not saying), visual cues (their body language) and sensory cues (the feelings they are projecting). To do that you have to be completely present, absorbing all that is being conveyed, rather than thinking ahead. So while listening is a skill we all know we need, and one that we are all capable of, it’s one that few have truly cultivated.
To listen you have to be aware of the voice in your own head. That voice will immediately start to judge what’s being said, start to defend, start to look for weaknesses in order to attack or to make us seem knowledgeable or superior. Being able to observe your own judgments, recognizing them as opinions rather than definitive rights or wrongs, and to allow others to be as they are is what it takes.
What you will find is, as you start to listen, people open up. Once they see that you are actually interested in what they are saying and not scanning the room for a more safe haven, the conversation takes on a momentum.
Instead of feeling relieved my partner’s dinner was over for another year, I found I had really enjoyed it, and was both relaxed and uplifted. The evening had actually given me a bit of a buzz.
Listening is truly a meditative practice because you are giving your presence to another. For anyone who has tried being mindful in this way, you will know it’s called practice for good reason, because our minds are constantly wandering. The trick is to notice your mind has wandered and just pull it back into focus, again and again.
That is natural, but if you continue to focus upon someone you will find, fairly quickly, that you will have something in common with them, and it makes the whole experience a whole lot better than the awkward, stressful type. If you are lucky you may suddenly happen upon a topic in which you realise you (and the person you are talking to) must be soul mates in some way because what they are saying is something that really resonates with you, then you’ve struck gold.
As tired as you are, as stressed as you are, look upon some of the events in the coming weeks in a different light. If you can see those once awkward social situations as an opportunity for upliftment you will reap the benefits on every level.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/10845359@N02/9073652476">Union & Pine 319</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>
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