One of our most basic human needs is the need for secure attachment bonds. Often even our closest relationships do not provide the safety to form the types of secure bonds we long for, and so our calls for connection become distorted by fear, frustration and misunderstanding. For example, Sue Johnson has a fascinating video where she digs deep beneath a couple’s conflict to show that what is really at stake is their need for connection, not the superficial issues they fight over. This makes sense from a human development perspective. When we were babies, whenever we felt pain and discomfort, we could cry out and have our needs met. As we mature, it’s natural to continue looking to those closest to us to rescue us from pain. This is natural because God created us to be fundamentally relational and to exist in communities of inter-dependence. Yet sometimes we hit out at our loved ones when they are unable to rescue us from discomfort and fulfill our expectations. In some relationships, these unrealistic expectations can create cycles of blame, shame and disconnection. One of the keys to properly understanding this type of conflict, and managing it effectively, is to develop emotional intelligence. I’d like to illustrate this with a fictional scenario.
How One Husband Learned to Start Listening to His Wife’s Feelings
Growing up, Veronica had a history of feeling abandoned by those closest to her, beginning when she was thirteen and her parents sent her to a Catholic boarding school run by hyper-strict nuns. Two years later she felt abandoned even further when her father divorced her mother. As a teenager, Veronica constantly felt empty inside but attributed it to the loneliness of being single. When Veronica married Jacob, she assumed he would be able to help her feel better. She loved everything about Jacob, from his deep voice to his calm and deliberate way he set about solving problems. For his part, Jacob had been attracted to Veronica’s passionate personality, which perfectly offset his more stoic tendencies.
Four months into the marriage, there began to be signs of trouble. When Jacob was unable to meet Veronica’s needs, she would lash out at him with anger, criticism and blame. “If only he could truly understand me, then I wouldn’t feel alone,” she kept saying to herself. The problem was that Veronica’s criteria for how well he was understanding her often hinged on him being able to fulfil overwhelming demands and expectations. As their marriage progressed, Veronica became more unstable and reacted by blaming her problems on Jacob and using anger to try to control things.
Ever since his school days, Jacob like to play the role of “rescuer” and help people solve their problems. As an undergraduate, he had temporarily worked as a human resources consultant, going into companies to help solve personnel conflict. It was second-nature for him to try to help Veronica. He tried everything he could think of to fix her problems, ranging from tough love to times when he would absorb all the blame onto himself. Whenever something worked, Jacob felt good about himself. Yet Jacob’ solutions were always short-lived, and eventually he defaulted to blaming himself for not being able to find a lasting solution.
This toxic cycle would have continued indefinitely if it weren’t for the intervention of a counselor at the Catholic Church they attended. The counselor, a man named Nick, had recently joined the parish after moving to the area to be near his aging mother. When their priest, Father O’Connor, learned that Nick was a professional counselor, he asked him to quietly observe Jason and Veronica to see if he could help them.
“I haven’t been able to understand what’s going on,” Father O’Connor explained, “and quite frankly, I’m worried that they could be heading towards divorce.”
At first Nick declined to get involved, explaining to the priest that he never mixed his counseling practice with his personal life. But after Fr. O’Connor persisted, Nick agreed to informally observe the couple and see if there was anything he could do to help.
For the next few weeks, Nick got to know the Jacob and Veronica, both from visiting them at church and talking to each of them individually. One Sunday after church, when all the ladies had gone off to a women’s retreat, Nick invited Jacob to come over to his house. “I’ll be trimming the hedges of my new property,” he explained, “and I’d be glad for the extra company while my wife is gone. We could continue our discussion from last week about some of the challenges you’ve been facing.”
Later that afternoon, as Jacob helped Nick with his hedges, they began talking about the troubled marriage. In the course of the conversation, Nick put down his pruning shears and asked, “You know, Jacob, I wonder: have you ever considered that maybe Veronica needs you to simply be present with her in the midst of the pain she’s feeling, instead of always trying to fix the problem?”
“Well, she keeps telling me that her problems are all my fault, so naturally I want to try to fix things. Yet I just don’t know how to meet her expectations and that makes me feel overwhelmed and helpless. It’s so frustrating! The worst part about it is that usually it isn’t even clear what she’s even expecting of me.”
“But do you really believe that you are the cause of her problems?” asked Nick. “I think you know deep down inside that you can’t fix Veronica’s issues.” After a pause he continued. “Although our behavior can certainly influence the feelings of those around us, there are significant limits to how much control we have over other people’s emotions. And in my years as a counselor I’ve observe a certain irony: the more we assume inappropriate responsibility over the feelings of our loved ones, the more we sabotage our ability to give them what they really need.”
“How so?” Nick asked. “I mean, what do you think Veronica really needs from me?”
“Well, from you, maybe she needs you to stop trying to fix her all the time and just to be present with the pain she’s feeling. Whether real or imagined, she feels like you abandon her when you retreat into yourself. Your reaction is understandable because you’ve been hurt so much. But try to understand things from her perspective. For her to feel abandoned by her husband, especially after her history of abandonment since she was young—well that’s a pretty scary place to be.”
Jacob continued helping to trim the hedges while thinking about what Nick had just said. After a few minutes, he asked, “So are you saying I shouldn’t withdraw when she’s being cruel to me? The reason I put up walls is to protect myself from further hurt.”
“Obviously you need to draw appropriate boundaries to preserve yourself and the relationship,” Nick replied. “And that might certainly mean removing yourself from the situation until she has calmed down. But something else you could try is to look past her anger and see the pain that lies underneath it. You can connect with someone’s pain a lot better than you can connect with their anger. Let me ask you something. When Veronica is angry at you and starts pouring on blame, have you ever stopped and said to her, ‘It sounds like you’re hurting’?’ Or have you ever said, ‘It hurts me that I can’t be the person you need me to be.’”
“No, I haven’t,” Jacob replied. “When she’s angry I usually get defensive, or else I go into my fix-it mode. And when I try everything I can to fix the problem and it only makes things worse, then I often react with frustration or just retreat into myself.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, that’s actually a very typical pattern. Essentially you are vacillating between assuming the role of rescuer and that of victim.”
“How am I being the victim?” asked Jacob, a little taken aback.
“Every time you think things like, ‘I’m just so overwhelmed because I don’t know how to deal with this,’ or when you think you’re a helpless participant in circumstances outside your control, you’re acting like you are the victim of Veronica’s problems. Her problems become your problems, which is super stressful for you. The same thing happens when you try to step into the role of her rescuer: again you make her problems your own. In the process, however, you are avoiding taking constructive action in the areas where you might offer something profitable, such as connecting with your pain, and hers.”
“What do you mean, ‘connecting with my pain’?”
“You said it yourself when we were talking about this last week,” Nick answered. “It’s scary when you don’t know how to help the person you love. It hurts when you’ve become so disconnected from your spouse that you just want to be left alone, and yet at the same time you feel afraid of being alone because it means you’ve lost the person you love. It hurts to feel like you’re standing on the sidelines powerless to help your wife with what she’s going through.”
As Nick was talking, Jacob’ eyes began to well up with tears. “Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s how I feel.”
“Does Veronica know you feel like that?” he asked. “Have you ever told her that?”
Jacob shook his head. After a pause he said, “You know, when we were first married we shared everything. In fact, one of the reasons I was initially attracted to her was that we communicated so well. But the more we’ve grown distant from each other, the harder communication has become. When I open up and become vulnerable around her, she just uses that against me, and so I harden up so I don’t get hurt.”
“I understand,” he said. “That’s a natural reaction. At the same time, though, don’t you think she needs to hear how you feel? And if she reacts by simply pouring on more criticism and blame, then let her know how much that hurts you.”
“I see what you’re saying, but part of me is afraid to connect with her.”
“Then tell her that. It’s okay to say “I want to connect with you but I’m scared to.’ It’s okay to let her know that. At least then you’ll be being real with her. And you can let her know that it hurts that you can’t be the person she wants you to be. Tell her that you want to be superman who can just swoop down and fix all the problems, but you can’t, and that’s hard. And when she’s upset, show her that you can connect with her pain, even if it’s something as simple as saying, ‘The fact that you’re so angry at me right now, that suggests to me that you must really be hurting.’ You see, at the end of the day, the arguments that you and Veronica get into are not about who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s about both of you hitting out at the loss of the emotional connection.”
Later on, as they were driving back to the church for Jacob to pick up his car, Nick said, “Before I moved out here, I was doing a lot of work with clients who are in rehab from substance abuse. The one thing I never ask them is why they started doing drugs or alcohol. I know why people use substances: it’s to try to mask over their pain. Addictive behaviors enable us to avoid facing the truth about our lives. I tell my clients that the first step towards healing is to lean into and embrace their pain.”
“Well,” put in Jacob, “neither Veronica or I are taking drugs!”
“But can’t you see that it’s the same principle?” asked Nick. “It seems like a lot of the toxic interactions you and Veronica get into are simply ways of masking over your pain. It’s painful to be disconnected from each other. It’s painful to feel like everything you say is going to be misunderstood. Everything is so painful that you are both avoiding it. She avoids the pain by trying to connect with you in disordered ways through anger, blame and control, while you avoid the pain by always trying to find a solution that will fix the problem, or retreating into yourself when your attempts to fix things are shot down. Of course, when you retreat like this, it only makes her feel more disconnected from you, which compounds the problems. The two of you have been caught in this toxic cycle for so long that every time a problem arises, it’s like you start following the same predictable script.”
“Okay,” said Jacob, “You’re the expert—tell us how to get out of this cycle.”
“I don’t have any easy answers, but you could start by learning to lean into the pain. What that will mean for you is acknowledging that the reason you ping pong between being the victim and trying to be the rescuer is because it’s painful to go through so much hurt. If you can become comfortable just being present with that pain, then instead of trying to escape from it, you can redirect your energies into the areas where you really can do some good. Instead of trying to be superman and fill up Veronica’s emptiness, you can direct your attention to the little things you can do for her. Let her know what you’re available for.”
“Give me an example of what I could be available for?”
“Well, like what we were talking about earlier. You can say to her, ‘I can’t fix the problem, but I’m available for the next hour to sit with you. I can listen if you need to vent. I can hold your hand so you know I’m with you in this, even if you feel I don’t fully understand what you’re experiencing.’ Let her know that she doesn’t have to go through this pain alone.”
“And if I do that,” asked Jacob, “it will help to fix things for us?”
“Even by asking that question,” replied Nick, “it’s like you’re wanting to move into the role of rescuer again. Of course you want to make things better so the pain goes away, but I suspect that healing has to start by learning to be present with the pain instead of trying to make it go away. Veronica buffers herself from the pain through blame, criticism and anger, just as you buffer yourself from the pain through withdrawal, defensiveness and thinking of yourself as the victim or rescuer. But all this does is to mask over the pain you’re both feeling, and it keeps you tethered to these toxic patterns of interaction. Maybe things will get better and maybe they won’t, but the way you can survive this together is by learning to lean into the pain. Remember what I said earlier: if you look past Veronica’s anger to the pain that undergirds it, you may find yourself more empathetic. You can connect with someone’s pain a lot better than you can connect with their anger.”
Listen to Your Feelings – they might have something important to tell you
In the above story, Nick helped Jacob to develop something known as emotional intelligence or EQ. Emotional intelligence is the term psychologists use to refer to a person’s ability accurately to perceive emotions in himself and others, and to use this information to act wisely.
I first became interested in emotional intelligence in 2016 when I was hired to write curriculum for the graduate programs of six different universities. The topic I was asked to research was about integrating mindfulness practices into the classroom, and using mindful breathing to help students and teachers develop emotional intelligence. Part of my studies on mindfulness involved spending months reviewing the research on emotional intelligence. I came away from these studies convinced that a person’s wellbeing, overall success in life, and the quality of their social interactions, are all largely determined by that person’s level of emotional intelligence.
An emotionally intelligent person is able to correctly identify how she is feeling and to use that knowledge to self-regulate her internal states, as opposed to simply being carried away by the latest emotion. Someone with emotional intelligence is also able to perceive and understand what other people are feeling even when the other person’s feelings may be very different to her own. For example, in the above story, Veronica’s emotions were very different from anything Jacob had personally experienced. Yet Nick was able to help Jacob begin perceiving and understanding what Veronica was experiencing. By developing emotional intelligence, Jacob was able to begin responding to his wife in healthier ways, such as saying things like, “It sounds to me like you’re really hurting right now.”
One of the reasons so many people find it difficult to accurately identify their emotions is because their default response is to judge their feelings, labeling them as either “good” or “bad.” An alternative approach is to see our emotions as messengers offering valuable insight into ourselves, our circumstances, and our relationships. For example, Nick helped Jacob to see Veronica’s rages as messengers of important emotions she was feeling, including abandonment, emptiness and hurt. By learning to exercise emotional intelligence, Jacob was able to stop judging Veronica’s anger or taking it personally, but instead to be present with the pain behind it.
The point is that emotions are important messengers that may be trying to tell us something. By developing emotional intelligence we can befriend our emotions and start listening to their messages. That does not mean that there is no such thing as disordered emotions. But even disordered emotions (i.e., self-pity, avarice, hopelessness, envy, lust, bitterness, contempt, etc.) have the potential to tell us something valuable about ourselves, perhaps something uncomfortable that we need to face.
The Serbian Orthodox monk, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica (1914-2003), was a Christian witness to the importance of listening to our feelings. Elder Thaddeus was sought out by pilgrims all over the world since he always seemed to know what to say to help each person, even without knowing anything about the person’s background.[i] Drawing on principles that had helped him overcome anxiety in his youth, he taught people to watch their feelings and to ask questions like, “am I feeling empty or sad right now? If I am, why?” “What is going on inside of me right now?” Elder Thaddeus taught that as we learn to be conscious about our emotional life, we can become attentive to thoughts that might be proceeding out of previously unidentified feelings and visa versa.
The type of emotional self-monitoring that Elder Thaddeus advocated is crucial if we are to achieve the type of self-rule that the Bible impresses upon us (Prov. 25:28). By pausing in the stream of life to be attentive to our moods and feelings, we can take a deep breath and engage in constructive self-talk, including asking questions like the following:
- When did I begin feeling like this and why?
- When I feel anger, frustration or judgment, are these symptoms of prior emotions like shame, inferiority, or fear of abandonment?
- When did my mood change to become darker? Was it because of unhealthy thoughts?
- Have I taken something personally that I ought to let go?
- What is behind my anger? Is it really entirely the other person’s problem, or is his/her problem getting blurred with my own issues?
- Am I feeling alone because I am acting as if I am independent from God?
- Does my lack of peace arise from any thinking errors, such as comparing myself to others or inappropriate self-criticism?
- Is the reason I’m stressed right now because I am trying to control a situation that I already handed over to God?
- Is the reason I so easily get annoyed by a certain person because I am harboring a judgmental spirit?
- When did I lose my sense of peace and why?
- Are the emotions I’m feeling right now because of a rigid insistence on my need to be right, or a refusal to be flexible and view things from another person’s perspective?
The goal in asking these types of questions is to bring self-awareness to our feelings instead of merely being carried away by them. Often we simply feel one thing then another, then another, without always realizing where these feelings are coming from, and without understanding why we react like we do. Emotional self-awareness is a way to move into the realm of self-mastery. By getting in touch with our feelings, we can begin to increase the distance between stimulus and response and thus to cooperate with divine grace in the soul’s purification.
One way of working through troubled emotions is to let them come to the surface and breathe a little, like the complaints issued by the Psalmist in Psalm 41 and 42. It’s easy to feel ashamed of our emotions and retreat behind a stoicism that says, “I’m not lonely,” “I’m not scared,” “no one can ever hurt me”, “I will never let myself become vulnerable again.” In such a hardened state, we may find it difficult to be real with God about our needs, struggles and temptations. Even though God knows us better than we know ourselves, we often feel embarrassed coming to Him and being totally honest with the pain we are feeling.
Psalm 42 is a good example of coming to God with our pain. Through this Psalm, the writer zigzags back and forth between a painful transparency of troubled emotions and a child-like trust in God. There is an important connection between these two aspects since sometimes we have to be vulnerable with God about our darker feelings before we can receive the comfort and healing He longs to provide. Remember that emotional intelligence is about skillful monitoring our emotional state, and using this self-monitoring as a basis for wise self-talk and decision-making. All these aspects come to play in Psalm 42, as the Psalmist’s emotional self-monitoring (“I pour out my soul within me…my soul is cast down”, etc.) is integrally connected to wise self-talk (“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”) and appropriate decision-making (“Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him”).
Tune Into Your Emotions by Listening to Your Body
You may have wondered if emotional intelligence is a skill we are simply born with, or whether it is something that can be developed with practice.
Insight into this question emerged when a group of scientists at the University of Iowa set up a gambling exercise in which participants had sensors attached to their hands. Each person was asked to pick cards from a red deck or a blue deck. In the course of the game, the participants eventually all realize that over time it is only possible to win by taking cards from the blue deck. But most people didn’t realize that until turning over 80 cards. However, the significant part of the experiment occurred before each participants consciously realized that the red deck was disadvantaged. About 40 cards into the game, the palms of each participant began to sweat when reaching for a card from the red deck—a clear sign of nervousness. But this is rather strange, because it means that each person’s body knew there was something wrong with the red deck 40 cards before their conscious mind was aware of it. Each person’s body registered anxiety taking cards from the red deck before they were consciously aware that it was disadvantaged.[ii]
This experiment demonstrated a truth we’ve probably all experienced: emotions have physical effects. Moreover, emotions often affect the body before we are even conscious of the emotion. This offers a clue to the earlier question of whether emotional intelligence is a skill that can be developed. By learning to listen to your body, you can learn to tune-in to your emotions. Learning to become aware of what is happening at the level of physiology (a sensory process known as “interoception”) can help us grow in the skill of emotional intelligence.
This is easier said than done. In our age of constant noise and stimulation, it is easy to be inattentive to the signals our body is sending us. Sometimes we fail to read our body’s warning signs and so we simply react to the results of being hungry, having a headache, experiencing stress, having bad posture, being tired, or having an unhealthy heart-rate. Even when these conditions have reached the point of becoming symptomatic, we often merely treat the symptoms instead of listening to what our body is trying to tell us. For example, we deal with being tired by drinking coffee instead of getting enough sleep; we deal with back pain by taking pain medication instead of making long-term corrections to our posture; we deal with stress by escaping into an even more busy life instead of taking time to pursue appropriate self-care activities.
The cash-value of giving attention to your body goes beyond simply self-care. As we have seen, listening to your body is crucial in being able better to regulate what is happening in your emotional life. Remember, subtle changes in mood are often experienced first in the body and only afterwards by the conscious mind. By achieving present-moment awareness of the body, you can start listening to the messages your physical self is trying to send you, including messages about your emotions. By being mindful of the needs, reactions and sensations of your body, you can increase the distance between stimulus and response and make wise choices as a result.[iii]
If you’re skeptical of what I’m saying, try a little experiment. The next time you feel stubborn or defensive, notice how it makes your body feel. Do you feel a tightening of the neck muscles? When you’re grieving, how does that effect your body? When you feel shame, anxiety of anger, how does that make your body feel?
By learning to “tune-in” to the messages from your body, you can begin picking up valuable clues about your emotional life and make wise choices as a result. For example, when Carol began learning to tune-into her body, she started noticing that during certain types of conversations with her boyfriend, her heart-rate would suddenly speed up. If she had stopped to think about it, she might has said that she felt threatened and defensive. By observing her reactions on the physical level, Carol was able to pause and reflect, and then take appropriate action as a result. In her case, the action was to say to her boyfriend, “I need to pause and take some deep breaths before we continue,” or sometimes even “I’d prefer if we postponed this discussion for another time.”
Scientists and engineers are discovering that this type of body-awareness plays a central role in developing emotional intelligence. One engineer who learned about this was Chade-Meng Tan, or Meng as he likes to be called. While working as an engineer for Google, Meng was allowed to use some of his work time to research the connection between body-awareness and emotional intelligence. Meng’s work was so helpful that Google moved him into Human Resources so he could work full time helping people become more mindful of their body and emotions. In 2012, Meng wrote a book about what he calls “your inner search engine”, describing how to tune into your emotions via your body. Here’s how Meng explains the connection between body-awareness and EQ.
“Every emotion has a correlate in the body. Laura Delizonna, a researcher turned happiness strategist, very nicely defines emotion as ‘a basic physiological state characterized by identifiable autonomic or bodily changes.’ Every emotional experience is not just a psychological experience; it is also a physiological experience.
“We can usually experience emotions more vividly in the body than in the mind. Therefore, when we are trying to perceive an emotion, we usually get more bang for the buck if we bring our attention to the body rather than the mind.
“More importantly, bringing the attention to the body enables a high-resolution perception of emotions. High-resolution perception means your perception becomes so refined across both time and space that you can watch an emotion the moment it is arising, you can perceive its subtle changes as it waxes and wanes, and you can watch it the moment it ceases. This ability is important because the better we can perceive our emotions, the better we can manage them. When we are able to perceive emotions arising and changing in slow motion, we can become so skillful at managing them…[iv]
Tune Into Those Around You
Sometimes Christians get uneasy when I teach about the importance of tuning into our emotions through mindfulness of our body. “Isn’t it selfish to focus on ourselves?” some people ask. While this is a legitimate concern, it is misplaced. Remember that emotional intelligence involves two aspects: (1) an ability to accurately perceive emotions in ourselves, while using this information to act wisely, (2) the ability to accurately perceive emotions in others, and to use this information to act wisely. The reason it isn’t selfish to advance in the first aspect of EQ is because it leads directly into the second, namely an ability to better interact with others. The research shows that as we grow in self-awareness of our own emotions, we are better able to understand and empathize with others.
Some of the strongest evidence for a connection between self-directed EQ and others-focused EQ emerges when neuroscientists look at the part of the brain known as the insula. Here is how Meng summarizes some of the peer-reviewed research about the insula in his book Search Inside Yourself.
“There is a fascinating relationship between self-awareness and empathy. If you are strong in self-awareness, you are also very likely to be strong in empathy. The brain seems to use the same equipment for both tasks. Specifically, both qualities seem to have a lot to do with the part of the brain known as the insula. The insula is related to the ability to experience and recognize bodily sensations. People with very active insulae, for example, can become aware of their own heartbeats. What is really interesting is scientific evidence suggesting that people with active insulae also tend to have high empathy.”[v]
When we talk about empathy, we mean two things. First, there is something called “emotional empathy” which is our ability to feel what another person is feeling even when we have not personally had the same experience. (Note that this is different from sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone.) Second, there is something called “cognitive empathy” which refers to a person’s ability to know how the other person feels and what they might be thinking, and to understand why they might be feeling the way they do. Both types of empathy enable us imaginatively to extend ourselves into the other person’s frame of reference, which is ultimately an act of love and self-donation. Through empathy it becomes possible for two people who are vastly different to share experiences, and to participate in each other’s struggles, sorrows and joys.
We all experience the effects of empathy and its absence when we engage in conversations with friends. Have you ever shared a deeply personal emotion or experience with another person and then came away feeling like they just didn’t get it? Did you ever feel that however many different ways you tried to explain yourself the other person, he or she just wasn’t connecting with you? Maybe you came away from the conversation feeling stupid. I’m guessing we have all had experiences like that. But you have probably also had the experience of sharing something with a person who seemed to immediately “get it” without you even needing to go into a lot of detail. In such a case, maybe the other person seemed to have an intuitive sense of where you were coming from, or maybe he could even articulate what you were trying to say better than you could yourself. The simple act of a person listening probably made you feel validated, almost like the person was giving you permission to be you. The difference between these two scenarios—the one where you felt stupid and the other where you felt validated—probably hinged on the level of cognitive and emotional empathy in the person you were talking with. (Emotional empathy, remember, is the ability to feel what another person is feeling, while cognitive empathy is the ability to know how the other person feels and thinks.)
Much of the conflict we experience, even amongst people we love, is because of a lack of cognitive and emotional empathy. When we are not willing to tune into other people’s emotions, then unnecessary conflict often arises.
Consider that in many relationships between partners or within families, we can be drawn into conflict over trivial matters that only become matters of provocation because they trigger deeper areas of unresolved conflict, hurt, confusion, frustration or insecurity. Often the real issue behind a conflict is deeper feelings that have never been properly worked through or even acknowledged. Emotional empathy is a way to acknowledge and then look at these deeper issues. If both parties in a conflict are working on becoming more attentive to their own emotions, and if they are also trying to lovingly “tune-in” to what the other person is feeling, then they can take a step back and recognize the emotional dynamics at work. Instead of adopting postures of defensiveness and criticism, they can learn to listen with empathy to the underlying emotional dynamics at work.
Empathetic listening requires high levels of attentiveness. In fact, your attention span is directly related to your ability to grow in others-directed emotional intelligence. If your attention is scattered by incoming stimuli, you will find it hard to empathize and to be fully present with those you love. Ultimately, lack of attention makes it hard to offer others the type of self-donation that lies at the heart of Christ-like love. As Elder Thaddeus observed,
“If we listen to our neighbor with only half our attention, of course we will not be able to answer them or comfort them…. We are distracted. They talk, but we do not participate in the conversation; we are immersed in our own thoughts. But if we give them our full attention, then we take up both our own burden and theirs.”[vi]
I am becoming increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. When we make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. Yet we easily underestimate just how valuable a gift we offer when we simply listen. Conversely, we often fail to appreciate just how much we damage relationships through refusal to listen. This has been proved by Dr. John Gottman, famous for being able to observe a 15 minute conversation between a couple and then accurately predict if their marriage will end in divorce within ten years. Gottman conducted extensive studies aimed at identifying the common causes of marital breakdown. He found that one of “the four horsemen” that almost certainly destroys any marriage is stonewalling—refusal to talk and refusal to listen. For any relationship to work, both parties need to know they will be heard, which means that sometimes they will need to approach uncomfortable topics.[vii] Many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say. (In case you’re wondering what the other three marriage-killers are, they are criticism, contempt and defensiveness.)[viii]
[i] Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica (Platina, CA: Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009).
[ii] Malcom Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Black Bay Books, 2007), 8–10.
[iii] One example of a person achieving a high level of attentive perception of his body comes from the Russian spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim. The pilgrim in this story had such acute attentiveness to his body (a sense known as interoception) that he was able to observe the beating of his own heart in order to pray in rhythm to his heartbeat and breathing. Elsewhere he wrote of even being able to observe his internal organs with his mind’s eye: “Sometimes when I withdrew into myself, I saw clearly all my internal organs and was filled with wonder at the wisdom with which the human body is made.” Anonymous, The Way of a Pilgrim, 78.
[iv] Tan, Search inside Yourself, 22.
[v] Tan, 162.
[vi] Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, 95.
[vii] Many people think that getting into arguments or having stressful conversations is the cause of relationship breakdown. Accordingly, we imagine that the way for a relationship to work is to avoid conflict. But Gottman’s research shows that this isn’t the case. After thousands of hours of research, Gottman found that it is not conflict that destroys relationships, but inability constructively to manage conflict. Ironically, the desire to avoid stressful conversations can lead some people not to listen, which is far more toxic to a relationship than conflict. Gottman writes that “If there is one lesson I have learned from my years of research it is that a lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship. Many couples tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness and believe the claim ‘we never fight’ is a sign of marital health. But I believe we grow in our relationship by reconciling our differences. That’s how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage.” John Mordechai Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Your Marriage Last (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 28.
[viii] Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.