Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Willingness to share and understand

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Morning Session from the April 1976 Conference.
In several of my Family Science classes in college, we talked about methods of good communication, to the point that I got kind of oversaturated with it. And then I was in one class where the teacher said something like, "We're always trying to say if we could just communicate better in marriage, things would be better. Well, we don't need better communication—we need more charity! If we can truly develop Christlike love for our spouse, then our communication will just flow naturally out of that." When I heard that, I thought it was so insightful, and taken together with my growing distaste for all the catchphrases about "validation" and "mirroring empathy" etc., it stuck with me. And ever since then, every time I hear about "communication" I kind of think, "Hmmph, who needs it!"

But…there is a time for everything, and I keep finding that truths I need to hear have a way of working themselves back into my life when I need them. And Elder Marvin J. Ashton's talk Family Communications did just that. I liked so much of the advice he gave, and I thought a lot of it, far from being just social science jargon, was really useful doctrine with true spiritual application. Because the truth is, I'm not a great communicator. (Not great at charity, either, so I guess they're BOTH areas I can work on.) I do pretty well with writing if I have a long enough time to think and can use the delete key liberally, and I don't mind teaching or speaking in a controlled, well-prepared-for environment, but when it comes to surprising, messy, unexpected, emotional, real-world situations (so, er, practically all the time)—I flounder.

But! Thankfully, Elder Ashton has some great counsel! He starts out with the stark statement that
Communications in the family will often be a sacrifice because we are expected to use our time, our means, our talent, and our patience to impart, share, and understand.
I like how he leads with that, because it reminds me that it doesn't really MATTER if communication is hard for us, or if it's inconvenient. We just…have to get good at it anyway. Elder Ashton goes on to develop this theme of sacrifice:
Be the kind of a family member who is willing to take time to be available. Develop the ability and self-discipline to think of other family members and their communication needs ahead of your own—a willingness to prepare for the moment—the sharing moment, the teaching moment. Shed the very appearance of preoccupation in self, and learn the skill of penetrating a family member’s shield of preoccupation. … 
Too early and too often we sow the seeds of “Can’t you see I’m busy? Don’t bother me now.” When we convey the attitude of “Go away, don’t bother me now,” family members are apt to go elsewhere or isolate themselves in silence. All family members on some occasion or other must be taken on their own terms so they will be willing to come, share, and ask. 
It takes personal sacrifice to communicate when conditions are right for the other person—during the meal preparation, after a date, a hurt, a victory, a disappointment, or when someone wants to share a confidence. One must be willing to forego personal convenience to invest time in establishing a firm foundation for family communication. When communication in the family seems to be bogging down, each individual should look to himself for the remedy.
I remember talking to a friend about how her teenagers always wanted to talk and talk and talk to her late at night, and she was just…so…tired—but she also knew that if this was the time they wanted to talk, this was the time she NEEDED to be willing to listen. Even through the tiredness. I have experienced this to some extent with all my kids, and I'm sure it will continue. The times to talk and listen are so rarely easy or without sacrifice! I love how Elder Ashton emphasizes the importance of communication "when conditions are right for the other person." Being willing to put down my book or my laptop—even when I've been doing things for other people all day and I just finally sat down to rest and I feel so entitled to this scarce precious time to myself!—even and especially then—my willingness proves that I really do want to nurture and improve my relationships. Being willing to let a little person "help me" cook dinner, even when I'm trying to go quickly and the baby is crying and I want nothing more than just to get it done—my ability to overlook the inconvenient timing shows, in a way almost nothing else can, my love for and commitment to that person who needs and wants me right then.

Elder Ashton also says,
How important it is to be willing to voice one’s thoughts and feelings…We must learn to communicate effectively not only by voice, but by tone, feeling, glances, mannerisms, and total personality… Silence isolates. Strained silent periods cause wonderment, hurt, and, most often, wrong conclusions.
God knows the full impact of continuing communication as he admonishes us to pray constantly. He, too, has promised to respond as we relate to him effectively.
This was a good reminder to me too. Sometimes I think I absorbed the lesson about "if you can't say something nice, just don't say anything at all" a little too well, because often when it's just too hard to figure out how to manage a complicated topic, or to bring up something uncomfortable, I just give up and retreat fully into silence on that subject. And I don't know—probably it's still better than fighting. And I do think it's good to know how to avoid certain subjects in social settings, and how to swallow your angry retorts about politics or whatever. But I do think the opposite extreme can be bad too, and if everyone keeps silent about things that are hard to say—we won't grow and learn from each other as much as we could. I think it's true in marriage as well as in larger social settings: some sharing of truth, even when hard and uncomfortable, is necessary for closeness. Some navigation of difficult territory must precede the discovery of new common ground. It takes bravery, but it's worth the effort.

And then sometimes, also, I just don't want to say something dumb. And when I'm thinking of it in my head before saying it, everything starts to sound dumb. So I self-edit myself into total silence, and that's silly too. As Elder Ashton says, "Silence isolates!" And that's never the ideal! I love how Elder Ashton brings communication with God into the discussion, because that's one place where I sometimes do this. "Oh, Heavenly Father doesn't want to hear me go on and on about how hard this is. I'm sure he's sick of me by now. And he already knows everything anyway, so what's the point in telling Him?" But I know that line of thinking is totally wrong. I have to trust that He DOES want to hear from me, even if I struggle for the right words. He DOES want me to articulate my worries and my hopes and my feelings, even if he already knows them. I know that because when I try to communicate and share myself—my deep, true self—with God, I always feel better afterwards. I feel heard and uplifted and loved, even in nothing in my circumstances has changed.

Elder Ashton has several other recommendations for good communication, but these two ideas are what stuck out to me most: sharing thoughts and feelings is hard, but worth it. And listening to others'  thoughts and feelings is hard, but worth it. Communication is something God wants us to get good at—not as an end in itself, but because it will help us grow together and become one in our families and our marriages and our friendships. Because if "silence isolates"—then true, Godlike communication must do the opposite—it must unite, connect, include. And isn't that what we all want? To stop feeling alone? To be loved and included and made one with the people that matter to us?


Other posts in this series:

6 comments:

  1. Ah. So good. I'm just going to try and keep that thought about being there -- ready to communicate when they are ready -- constantly in the back of my mind because with my kids it is almost ALWAYS at bedtime when I'm so exhausted and ready to rid myself of the little creatures :). But even if it is part stalling tactics on their part, we do have some of our best conversations when I allow it.

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    1. Yes. Bedtime. Always. And you know it IS part stalling tactics! But just often enough...it ends up being so great and worth it. That's why it's a sacrifice, I guess---because it's not ALWAYS this wonderful, rewarding thing---but it pays off eventually.

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  2. Argh. I hated all of this. It is the hardest thing in the WORLD to stop doing the "task" once the "task" is begun. I really struggle putting kids ahead of the to-do list. I've been feeling that my oldest needs more one-on-one chatting time and she tracks me down before she goes to bed, and I know that I shouldn't shoo her off to bed without some chatting time but it is so hard to do the right thing. So. Hard.

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    1. Hahaha. Oh, I know! And the thing is, you know you can't ALWAYS drop everything to listen and spend time! If I did that every time Teddy wanted me to read to him, I would never do anything else! And he always just seems mad when I stop, whether it's the 10th book or the 1st! And of course there are time constraints with dinner and bedtime and stuff too. But somehow we have to find this balance where our kids are feeling prioritized and listened to ENOUGH, in spite of the constraints. It IS hard!!

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