WHEN YOU'RE HAVING a difficult moment with
any person, stop whatever you're doing and start applying this
method: Listen completely and speak only truth. This is one of
the most useful, all-purpose and powerful methods in this section.
This one principle, applied with vigor, will straighten out almost
any mess a relationship can get itself into.
One of the biggest mistakes people make
is not listening. When you have something you want to say or
when the other person is saying something you don't want to hear,
what can you do? Interrupt, leave, start doing something else
you have a lot of obvious options.
Or there are subtler possibilities. Have
you ever been angry while someone was talking and you were "listening"
to what they were saying, but you listened to find something
wrong with what they were saying? Sure you have. I have
too. But it never does any good. It isn't really listening.
What works, and I'm sure you even know
it works already, is to listen. Listen completely. And when the
other person has gotten across what they need to say, and all
they need to say (that's the completely part), and you
have understood them, then speak. I'll bet you already
knew that. But the natural and automatic thing to do is anything
but that. Thus this article.
Drill it into your head. Practice it at
every opportunity, which means any time you're talking with someone.
And when you notice other people don't do that, don't say to
yourself, "Well they aren't doing it with me, so it's not
fair to me if I do it and they don't, so I won't do it either."
It certainly would be ideal if both of
you listened completely and spoke only truth, but it isn't likely.
And that's okay. Your relationships will
work better for you, be more satisfying to you,
benefit you, if you listen completely and speak only truth
even if the other person in the relationship doesn't do it. And
it'll be worse for you if you don't do it, regardless of what
the other person does.
But there is a good chance that your practice
of this method will influence them to do it back, or at least
do more of it than before. Especially if you explain what you're
This principle really shows itself off
during conflict. It can take someone from being really lousy
at dealing with conflict to being really good at dealing with
conflict in a very short time. But it is also good to use whenever
you are talking with someone with whom you want to have a close
relationship. Practice it all the time. Make it a new habit.
Make it a new part of your personality. Your life will never
be the same.
how to listen
Listening completely is not done with silence.
Yes, while the other is talking, you need to be silent to listen.
But at some point the person will stop. Is there something missing?
Is there something more you want to know? Is there a gap in your
understanding? Ask a question that allows the other person to
make you understand even more of the situation, of their
feelings, of their thoughts and understandings about it.
Ask questions, not in a lawyer-grilling-a-defendant
sort of way, but in a share-yourself-with-me way. Make yourself
understand that it is in both of your best interests if you understand
the other person. Then your sincere desire to understand will
draw the other person out. Your honest wish to know will bring
questions into your mind which you can then ask.
And the suggestion to listen completely
includes letting them know you understand. The look on
your face isn't enough. Nonverbal communication is not always
clear. You must say you understand, and not just by saying,
"I understand," although that is at least something.
Use the phrase, "It must have been..." to show that
you understand or give the person an opportunity to straighten
you out if you don't understand. "It must have been frustrating
to have so many things go wrong at once." "It must
have been infuriating to see me do it again." "It must
have taken the heart right out of you to see it break."
There's nothing sacred about the words
"it must have been..." Any words that do the same job
will do: "I'll bet you were...you must have felt..."
"Did it seem dangerous?" "That had to make you
mad." "Wow, three in a row? That's amazing."
Use words to let the person know you are
listening, and you are not just hearing the words but you're
hearing and understanding the feelings too. Another reason this
is a good idea is that you might be getting it wrong. By saying
out loud what you think they must have felt or what it must have
been like for them, you allow them to correct you if you're wrong,
and so you get a better understanding. And the person you're
talking to gets a better idea of how much is getting across.
When they feel understood, something good happens. There's a
relief or a completion, or something. But whatever it is, it
is good and it is healthy. You do the ones you love a favor by
Studies have shown that confiding in someone,
especially about troubling things, is much healthier than keeping
it to oneself. You do people a real, measurable service to listen
and let them know you understand.
A friend of mine I have known for about
nine months once confided in me and told me something that I'd
never heard someone say. In the weeks before he confided in me,
he had told me he had a lot on his mind and was waking up at
night and unable to go back to sleep. But the things he told
me he was worrying about didn't seem that serious: They were
work-related or money-related. I wondered why they kept him awake
Then he told me what was really bugging
him. A long time ago, he had done something he felt very guilty
about. It happened a long time ago, in another country. His circumstances
then were very different than the life he was leading now, but
he had a memory of his past and it haunted him.
I don't know what he was like before, but
he is a good man now, and I could tell it was important that
he say this thing. So I listened and I asked questions. Some
of the most important questions were "it must have been..."
It did him good to get it off his chest.
He was noticeably lighter. He was able to sleep. He seemed relieved
of a great burden. When people are able to confide an emotionally
significant experience like that, it makes them more whole, more
healthy, even more sane. It helps the person mend themselves.
When you listen, you are giving a great
someone willing to listen
In an ongoing study at the University of
Washington, something is becoming clearer and clearer: The amount
of coronary artery disease you can measure isn't a very good
indicator of how bad off the person is. Other factors, such as
the amount of anxiety or depression the person feels and how
often, as well as how effective they feel they are in the world,
are also important indicators. One factor that enters the picture
heavily is having someone who will listen.
The head of the Center for Living at Duke
University, Martin Sullivan, MD, says, "Those patients who
have a confidante do much better than those who don't."
Listening is powerful. But it isn't really
natural. It's natural to interrupt and out-talk other people.
Every child does this unless they are trained to do otherwise.
But most of us, even as adults, are still not very good at listening.
You may be, and if you are, my hat's off to you you're
making the world a better, saner, healthier place.
And even as good as you are, you can probably
be even better. You can listen more intently. You can ask better
questions. You can get better at letting the person know you
understand. You can improve your ability to judge when is the
time to talk and when is the time to listen.
When you're dealing with a difficult moment
with people, it can make a huge difference.
Listening, though, is only half the task.
The formula is: Listen completely and speak only truth.
The truth needs a little explaining. I
don't mean truth "as you know it." I mean just truth.
And let's not get lost in a philosophical discussion about whether
when you perceive the color red if it is really the same perception
in my brain, or whether the universe really exists outside our
own experience. Let's be a little more practical.
When I say, "The door was open when
I walked in," that's truth (if I'm not lying). I'll give
you a bunch of examples just to make it clear. And let's assume
the person speaking is not lying.
"I feel sad and confused." That's
a statement of truth.
"You are mean to me." That is
not a simple statement of truth. "Mean" is an
interpretation of what actually happened. And this is one of
the big things to look out for when you're trying to speak only
truth. Interpretations and generalizations like this are a big
cause of problems between people.
Let me explain what's wrong with the statement.
First off, it would be more accurate to say, "You are mean
to me sometimes." Because obviously you're too smart to
keep interacting with someone who is mean to you all the time.
But to be even more practical, you'd want to say, "You were
mean to me this morning." It's more practical because something
can be done about a real incident. Nothing can be done about
a vague generality, other than answer with another vague generality:
"Okay, I'll try to be less mean to you."
But even that is unsatisfactory. You're
still using the "mean" interpretation. Let's get more
accurate, more specific. More truthful. "This morning you
slammed the door on the way out and I felt hurt by it
not because my finger was caught in the door but because I thought
you must be angry at me and I didn't think I deserved it."
Of course, "you slammed the door"
is a guess and not strictly truth. "When you closed the
door it made a louder noise than it usually does," would
be even more scientific and closer to speaking only truth (and
not mixing up any interpretations and guesses about whether it
was intentional, and without any generalizations about something
vague like "meanness").
I'm going to use more examples in a minute,
but first I want you to look at what the accuracy has done for
your statement. It starts out as You are mean to me, which,
if you can imagine someone saying it to you, would be hard do
deal with where do you start? You can start with That's
bullshit! but that doesn't sound like the beginning of a
So it starts out as You are mean to
me and ends up with This morning when you left, the door
made a louder noise than it usually does and I was thinking maybe
you slammed it on purpose because you were mad at me. Were you?
Compare the two statements. Imagine someone
saying them to you. Do you see how this is a much easier statement
to respond to? And how it might lead to a constructive conversation?
That's what speaking only truth does for communication. It directly
and literally increases communication because if you look at
the two statements from the point of view of how much is being
said you can easily see that the first sentence leaves a lot
unsaid and leaves it up to the listener to figure out what he's
talking about, while the second says quite a bit and doesn't
make the listener guess anything. That's better communication.
And you really have to concentrate on what you're doing to be
able to do it. It does not come naturally.
Now, more examples. From now on, I want
you to call me if you're going to be later than ten. Is that
a true statement? Yes, absolutely. You're simply saying what
You're so inconsiderate! Truth? No way. It's a generalization, an interpretation,
and doesn't give anything specific. Looked at scientifically,
it is not a fact, but a hypothesis, and one that could never
be validated or invalidated. Any discussion about it will probably
I think you're a jerk. True or false? Ooh, that's a tricky one. You
may indeed have the thought you're a jerk so technically
it is a true statement, but it is unproductive to say so because
the thought you're sharing is not true for all the same reasons
as the previous paragraph. It's a generalization, an interpretation,
and it can never be validated or invalidated conclusively. "Remember
not only to say the right thing in the right place," wrote
Benjamin Franklin, "but to leave unsaid the wrong thing
at the tempting moment."
I think if you stopped doing that, I'd
feel better. Is this a true statement?
Yes. It is a hypothesis, and you state it accurately as one.
One more. I feel you're a jerk.
What do you think? True or false? False again. Feelings are very
basic: Anger, sadness, fear, and their milder and more extreme
forms (for example, mildly angry might be annoyed, peeved, frustrated,
etc., while extreme anger might be enraged, incensed, furious,
etc.) Don't get fancy. Feelings are basic. You're a jerk
is not a feeling. It is an opinion, and a highly abstract and
worthless one at that.
I think that's enough examples. When you
want to "speak the truth," here's where to focus your
1. what you want
2. what you feel
3. what you observe
And be as accurate and specific as you
can. That's what speak only truth means. Confucius said
wisdom was "when you know a thing, to recognize that you
know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that
you do not know it." And the better you get at it, the better
your relationships will get. As long as you don't try to teach
it to the person while you're arguing. I'm all for you helping
other people to learn this stuff, but wait until you're happy
with each other. During conflict, just do it yourself.
Keep in mind that listening needs to come
first. People generally don't want to listen when they have something
to say. So arguments develop where each person interrupts the
other. Neither listens, and the conversation goes nowhere. Worse:
It goes down. You're actually worse off than if you had said
nothing because of all the untruth that has been spoken
all the generalizations and interpretations and unqualified opinions
and hypotheses spoken as statements of fact.
research shows the way
William Swann, Jr., PhD, at the University
of Texas found after studying about 200 couples, that before
people get married, they want their partners to tell them how
great they are, but after they're already married, they want
honesty. Too much flattery praise that isn't justified
makes most people uncomfortable, and makes even people
with a high level of self-esteem withdraw psychologically from
the marriage. We want honesty. That's what makes people
feel close to each other. Praise where it is deserved, for sure,
but nowhere else.
Clifford Notarius, PhD, did a study on
husbands who criticized their wives in a way that used mind-reading.
That means saying things like, "I know you hate me,"
or "You're always thinking bad things about me." When
husbands did that to wives, their children had more problems
like substance abuse, headaches, social incompetence, nervousness,
anxiety, insecurity. And the kicker is that the children don't
have to be present when the parents are fighting. It turns
out that the way a man fights is not isolated to just fighting
with his wife. That's the way he deals with conflicts and problems.
And that way of dealing with conflicts and problems shows up
in the way he interacts with his kids, which teaches them by
example how to deal with life in a way that doesn't work.
You can make your children more psychologically
and socially healthy by making this principle a part of your
character. Learn to listen when talking to your spouse, and it
will change you in other ways too without trying. It will teach
you new ways of dealing with problems and conflicts, and this
will spill over to benefit your kids.
Researchers at Ohio State University have
shown that when arguments between couples disintegrates into
put-downs and sarcasm, stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine
kick in, and send the immune system into the gutter. When you
are listening well and speaking only the truth, you'll automatically
avoid most put-downs and you'll completely avoid sarcasm, two
of the most deadly tactics to a relationship.
Do yourself a favor, and do the people
you love a favor. Use this method. Make it your new Law. Live
by it. Repeat it to yourself every day until it becomes a habit-knit
part of your personality. You will reach a whole new level in
your relationships. Listen completely and speak only truth.
In an argument:
Listen completely and speak only truth.