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The Art of Conversation

Welcome to November, friends, a month marked by pumpkin spice lattes, the first peek at holiday decor, and for many of us, lots and lots of family gatherings! At a time when so much of our communication is done via text/email/social media, it’s refreshing to sit across the table from a human being and discuss thoughts, ideas, memories, and jokes live, right?

Maybe not for everyone. I recently heard a story on NPR about families who simply couldn’t discuss anything more meaningful than the weather without getting into arguments so nasty that it literally tore them apart. Maybe it’s the fact that our country has never been so divided or that our politics have never been so full of finger-pointing and name-calling, but I think there is something deeper at play. We have collectively lost the art of real conversation – the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and opinions without the intention of persuading anyone to take our side, but to actually learn more about theirs.

This really isn’t surprising considering we now have most of our exchanges through a screen. We can state our opinion in 140 characters and then sign-off without having to even acknowledge a response….the tech equivalent of saying something and then covering our ears while shouting “la la la la” instead of hearing what the other has to say. We don’t have to experience how our words affect someone because we can’t see their physical reactions, and we can simply unfriend people who have opinions that challenge ours. Basically, we get to do all of the talking and none of the listening.

Which leads us to this month’s intention at Yogaleena: listening.

I Googled the difference between hearing and listening and found this:

Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound by the ear. If you are not hearing-impaired, hearing simply happens. Listening, however, is something you consciously choose to do. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences.

I would add that truly listening also requires interpreting people’s facial expressions and body language, and a desire to understand what they are trying to say. This puts the burden on both parties to communicate clearly, not solely on the speaker to deliver eloquently.

Given that clarification, how often do you engage in conversation without truly listening? I know I do, a lot.

Since I typically have more serious discussions with people I know very well, I tend to go into it already assuming what they are going to say. Instead of listening, I focus on validating or refuting their point of view…or lose focus altogether and start thinking about what I’ll be having for dinner. I don’t have to look too far to give you an example.

Dave grew up with 5 siblings in Flint, Michigan, hunting with his grandpa in the winter and wrestling in the spring. I grew up with 2 sisters in a different continent, crafting with my stay-at-home mama in the winter, and taking dance classes in the spring. To say we come from different realities is an understatement. So when we do get into any discussion deeper than what happened on the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory, I feel like I already know his opinion will be different than mine (because, you know, hunting and wrestling.) I hear what he has to say so that I can respond with equally convincing statistical evidence proving my point, but I don’t always listen to what he means. In these cases, I walk away without learning from our exchange, feeling slightly more distant and disconnected…the very opposite of what real conversation is all about.

Brene Brown talks about this sort of  “with us or without us” mentality in her latest book Braving the Wilderness. I totally get why we easily adopt this philosophy – it’s much easier to assign people into neat little  categories like “liberal” or “conservative” or “not like me” and disengage instead of listen for areas of commonality. The thing is, “with us or without us” are extreme opposites, and there is a lot of ground in between the two. It’s right there smack in the messy, uncomfortable middle that we have any hope of finding understanding, broadening our perspective, growing up, and driving positive change through our interactions. If we’re not willing to venture into the gray areas with our ears AND minds wide open, we might as well keep our mouths shut.

Which, I have to admit, seems more and more appealing these days. Why not just stay silent and avoid all the drama and hard work of engaging, connecting, and opening ourselves up to different ways of thinking? Elif Shafak answers that beautifully in her recent Ted Talk, The Revolutionary Power of Diverse Thought (so good, highly recommend.)

“I stopped talking because the truth was complicated, even thought I knew deep within that one should never ever remain silent for fear of complexity.”

So, no, we cannot hide away in our neat little ideology bunkers and cultivate peace through disengagement…that’s isolation, not harmony.  But I promise this is not a call to become politically active, either. It’s an invitation to talk to your neighbor, sister, or friend about something meaningful, honest, real. It’s a little push in the behind to share, discuss, agree, disagree, and connect with another human. It’s a plea to help heal the sad and divided state of our community through the simple act of softening our boundaries and truly listening – with mind and heart.

So where does yoga come into play here? Every step of the way. Yoga is nothing but the practice of listening. We come to our mats not to perfect that instagram-perfect arm balance, but to listen to our hearts, to cut through the biases that taint our perspectives, to understand our thought patterns, to learn about our intentions, desires, and needs. As it turns out, humans are not rational beings (not even close!), so studying ourselves using logic just doesn’t cut it. Instead, we need time with ourselves to decipher who we are, what we stand for, and why we react in certain ways. Introspection leads to an uncluttered heart, and an uncluttered heart is essential for connecting with others in a way that leads to more understanding, love, and peace instead of furthering the hate, name-calling, and fear that continue to tear us apart.

As we come together to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in a few weeks, I hope we all make a little room for listening amidst the sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and turkey. And if you need help creating space for it all, join me for a delicious pre-meal flow at the studio on November 23 at 9:30am.


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