At the end of a recent telephone call with my sister, we both said “I love you” to each other. And we both truly meant it.
We have a solid relationship, one that allows us to be honest and direct. We provide each other with a safe space to share victories and stumbles. When one of us is talking, the other is listening to understand, not just to respond with a generic statement or a polite gesture. As she speaks, I listen to the words, tone and inflection at the beginning, middle and end of each statement or question. Our relationship is one of acceptance, cooperation, empathy and trust.
Our relationship has been created together over time, even when it was uncomfortable.
That was not the case as we were growing up. Being the youngest of five children, I had only a split second to have my voice heard in any conversation. It was especially true during special occasions.
So, I learned to pay close attention to those very moments to insert my voice, thoughts, opinions and concerns. Yes, it is called interrupting. But it didn't matter to me that my statements referenced something that occurred in the conversation 20 minutes earlier and was no longer relevant. I was just excited and proud to have inserted my thoughts into this loud family of seven.
As you can imagine, this learned behavior carried into my teen years. I believed I was having meaningful conversations that established a connection with other individuals. Working to fine-tune my perceived skill of responding to others became smooth, like cutting through butter with a fire-hot knife. This skill was sure to serve me well into the future.
But it did not help to solve problems, resolve conflicts or even establish lasting relationships. Heck, people probably would have said those sisters do not like each other.
After high school, communication was different; so were my relationships, even with my sister. Our general conversations shifted to complex marital issues, conceiving issues and future planning.
On the day we buried my almost 2-month-old nephew, we talked. She shared some things that would have been difficult for any mother to share, especially after losing a child. During that conversation, I wasn't waiting on the precise moment to insert my thoughts. I looked at her eyes, listened to the tone of her voice, heard the inflection of her words, and observed how her shoulders laid a great distance from her earlobes. I saw and listened to her pain.
When I finally spoke, I asked questions to obtain clarity, reflected on her statements and offered words of encouragement. When she was too tired to say another word, I summarized our moment together and was there in the moment. I understood the message she delivered to me and the very essence of what she needed. She didn't need me to “fix” her, only to be by her side and available.
That conversation created a relationship I did not know could exist. It was a painful moment and beautiful at the same time.
Following that moment, I tossed out my once-prized skill of responding and became laser-focused on listening to understand. Words and how those words related to an individual's facial expressions, posture and tone of voice became so important. Yes, I was uncomfortable at first, but soon became comfortable.
We are taught active listening and effective communication are skills that can be learned. We also learn that our spoken words are 7% of communication, with 38% tone and 55% body posturing and movements. I want individuals in front of my face or on the phone to know that their words matter.
Author Patrick Lencioni said, “Human beings need to be needed. ... They need to know that they are helping others, not merely serving themselves.”
My sister began my journey of establishing meaningful relationships (personal and professional) with communication, she pushed me to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. For that, I want to say, “I love you”!
Nicki Venable is professional development manager for the city of Fort Wayne.