When we sit down to our Thanksgiving table this evening most of us will have much to be thankful for — not least a holiday when we can make that gratitude explicit. Unfortunately, for many, Thanksgiving also comes with friends and family who cause us tension, rancor and worry. At a cocktail party, one can remove oneself from an uncomfortable conversation by refilling a plate at a buffet or getting a drink at the bar. Thanksgiving seats us around a communal table. Escaping from an awkward discussion about politics or family issues is near impossible. This year, instead of worrying about how best to respond to provocation, give those around you the gift of listening.
Communicating well — with brevity, clarity, and focus — is a talent that's highly valued in business. We celebrate leaders who can explain complex ideas, tell stories, and make the intangible obvious to those around them. But the talent of a skilled listener in hearing and understanding that message, whether in the boardroom or around the Thanksgiving table, is just as important. Doing this well is an art in four acts:
Be fully present.
Paying attention to the person speaking to us is the foundation of active listening. Our phones should not be in our hands or face-up on the table in front of us. Our eyes shouldn't be searching for someone or something else. We aren't thinking about what to say next, no matter how uncomfortable the moment.
Be open to changing your mind.
It doesn't matter if a conversation changes your mind about an idea or strongly-held belief. What's important is that you engage with that possibility. Human beings are exquisitely sensitized to empathy. Listening to those who sit across from us with the intent to truly understand them pays dividends even though it never asks for them.
Change the tempo of the discussion.
Listening creates an atmosphere of learning and exploration. Welcome a change of pace in a conversation. If you need time to reflect, take it. If you need clarification, ask for it. What's important to those at your table, or in your workplace, is not the virtuosity or speed of the repartee, but knowing that they are heard.
You don't have to know the answer.
Listening and responding are different. It's ok to listen and then answer with "I don't know" or draw someone else into the conversation by asking their opinion. It's an unexpected response and a powerful way to set your interlocutor at ease.
We are afraid of silence. In 2014, researchers at the University of Virginia performed a series of experiments that found that people became intensely uncomfortable when asked to sit in a quiet room by themselves for up to 15 minutes — no music, phone or book. Almost half of the participants in the study actually preferred to distract themselves with a mild electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts.
Is this because we don't have practice in moderating the influence of the outside world? After all, our bodies supply us with eyelids to shut-off visual stimulation at will. But we have no earlids. Short of putting our fingers in our ears or headphones over them, we must face the sound of the world around us.
This Thanksgiving give those at your table the gift of your complete presence. Then, when dinner is finished, the dishes are cleared, and everyone is sitting in front of the television, give it to yourself. Take a walk — alone. Listen to the wind in the trees, the rustling of leaves, your footsteps, your breath on a cold night.
Published here on Forbes.com
November 22, 2018