Friday, February 26, 2010

Nonverbal Communication

A couple of weeks ago I agreed to speak at a ward youth conference to about 40 young people. The speaker they really wanted canceled out at the last moment and they asked me to pinch-hit for him. I had some misgivings about accepting the assignment on that basis, but feel an obligation to speak when asked, if it is at all possible.

To add to my misgivings I was scheduled to speak at 2 PM on an unusually warm Saturday afternoon. I didn't know at the time that the young people had spent all morning in a "bounce house" jumping their hearts out, then had eaten a large lunch, attended three workshops, and then staggered into the chapel for me to entertain and inspire for another 45 minutes.

I am unable to turn my head and my eyesight is not very good. Because of these two problems,  I basically can only see the people sitting directly in front of me when I speak or teach. I probably am the most laid-back teacher and speaker in the world.

As luck would have it, a little 12-year-old boy was sitting directly in front of me not two feet away and I could see him very well. He looked like he was dead. His face was pale, his eyes were glazed over and it didn't look like he was breathing. He was a 12-year-old zombie. No matter how funny the story or how wonderful the point I was making (in my own mind) his expression, or lack thereof, never changed. This was extremely disconcerting to me and began to destroy my confidence in what I was saying and doing there. The sad fact is that the 39 other kids were responding to me about the same way. Behind the zombie was a chubby little 12-year-old who was very much alive. Every funny story I told he would yawn, turn his head and look at the clock at the back of the chapel.

The highlight of my presentation was that a 16-year-old girl sitting by the chubby 12-year-old, actually smiled at the conclusion of my remarks. In retrospect she was probably relieved that the ordeal was finally over. I wonder if they will ever ask me to come back for a return engagement?

Without saying a word, these young people had communicated loud and clear that this had not been a motivating or life-changing experience in their lives. This they had communicated by their body language and the power of nonverbal communication.
"Body language is a form of non-verbal communication, consisting of body pose, gestures, and eye movements. Humans send and interpret such signals subconsciously... Body language may provide cues as to the attitude, or state of mind of a person. besides many other cues." [Wikipedia]

I think I first discovered the power of nonverbal communication as a young teacher when I taught religious education and counseled disturbed teenagers at a reform school/coed prison.

I had a student by the name of Ralph -- not his real name. He made my life miserable for almost an entire school year before I learned from him a great lesson about life and love. Ralph was against everything I was for. He was grossly overweight, took a shower infrequently based on the aroma that permeated the space his body occupied. His fingernails were dirty, his clothing was dirty, and so was his mouth. If I would use any religious word like "heaven" or "salvation" he would pretend that he was throwing up. At the beginning of class he would invariably say, "Are we going to have another of your blankety-blank lessons?" Because of Ralph, I changed my teaching strategy in that class. I would say something like "Before we have our lesson today, let me tell you what happened to me last night." Then I would proceed to teach the lesson without them ever knowing it.

He would smoke a cigarette right up to the door of our building each day and then throw the butt at my feet in a most defiant and belligerent manner. Each day I would stand at the door and shake the hand of each of my students as they entered, but when I extended my hand to Ralph, he ignored me, turned away, and in a state of hostility stomped into the classroom. Though I hate to admit it, I had developed a great dislike for Ralph. Let's be honest; I didn't like anything about him and without me saying a word he knew it. Each day I would pray that Ralph would be sick and not come to class, but he was 100% in his attendance.

Finally, I think it was toward the end of February; I knew I couldn't go on this way. I felt in my heart that Ralph was never going to change, so it was up to me to somehow change my feelings toward him. But how could I possibly do this? He was so unlovable!

Each day as the kids would approach our building I began to pray that the Lord would soften my heart toward Ralph, and that I might find something about him I could admire and respect.

Nothing happened for many weeks, but I persisted in my prayer about Ralph, and then one day a miracle occurred. As I watched him lumbering up to the building, smoking a cigarette, and probably telling a dirty joke to a fellow inmate, I realized that he was probably the most honest and forthright person I had ever known. He certainly wasn't trying to curry favor with me and kind of told it the way it was -- especially about my lessons. All of a sudden a feeling of warmth toward Ralph came into my heart. As he got close to me, trying to enter the classroom, instead of extending my hand to shake his, I hit him as hard as I could on the arm and almost knocked him down. He looked at me in amazement and he knew in that instant that something had changed in our relationship. He sensed that I was accepting him and wanted to befriend him -- not through anything I had said or would say -- just a feeling -- a true feeling!

I never once ever said to him, "Ralph, I really like you." He would have thrown up at that kind of a verbal statement. But he knew that things were different between us, and they were.

My greatest accomplishment as a teacher of teenagers came the last day of class that semester. As the class came to an end, Ralph stood up and said "I want to give the closing prayer." Looks of amazement appeared on the faces of the 11 other kids in class. Ralph stared at them and said, "Close your eyes and bow your heads!" Every student obeyed his command while he prayed somewhat as follows: "This class hasn't been so bad after all. And these teachers are not so bad either. In fact it has been good to be here."

I would like to say that Ralph went on to be a model citizen, but I don't think that is the case. However, he knew, and would know for the rest of his life, that a "religious dude" -- which we as teachers were called -- actually liked him and was his friend.

Don't get me wrong. It is important to verbally express love and appreciation to others. However, no matter how we may profess our love through words, what matters most is what we do and what we truly feel in our hearts. These feelings will most likely be best communicated in a nonverbal manner. If there is any chasm between what we feel and what we say it will be readily apparent and felt by others.

The Lord's most frequent manner of communicating with us is in a powerful, nonverbal and feeling way. "... if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right." [D&C 9:8] [Emphasis added]


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Are You Listening?

Jo Anne took me to Costco a while back to see if I needed Hearing Aids or was just tired of listening to her and tuning her out on purpose. Thankfully, the Costco Hearing Aid technician saved me. After an extensive test, he revealed to us that indeed I had lost 25 to 30% of my ability to hear in both ears. He recommended a pair of $1000 Hearing Aids, but when I tried them out all I could hear was the swooshing noise my ventilator makes as I breathe. I pretty much had to choose either breathing or hearing better, so I immediately opted for breathing. Much to my chagrin Jo Anne hesitated for some time weighing the options, but also finally agreed that maybe breathing was just a little bit more important than hearing well. I was very relieved!

However, I believe hearing well and especially listening carefully to others is almost as important as breathing. When I think of the people I enjoy visiting with the most it is invariably with those who really listen to me and seem genuinely interested in what I have to say. When I am in a crowded place like Costco for example, most people don't pay much attention to me but on occasion a random individual will approach me and say, "Wow, what an incredible wheelchair you have. How does it work?" And then they really listen and ask even more questions like "What happened to you anyway?" Whenever I have these experiences with strangers my life is enriched because they are validating me as a human being and a person of worth through their desire to hear and listen and understand.

Jo Anne is a good listener. She hears everything I say and many times things I don't say or didn't think I said. On occasion since my accident, we have had some heated conversations about various topics and just as I am about to make a winning argument she will reach over and pull my air hose off my throat -- end of conversation, end of empathetic listening -- end of life?

Many years ago I learned a great lesson about the importance of listening. I was teaching seminary at the Utah State Industrial School in Ogden, Utah, which in reality was a prison for juvenile delinquents who had run awry of the law.

One year while I was teaching there I would go to the maximum security unit once each day to teach a class to the boys incarcerated there because they were considered to be dangerous or a security risk. They wore blue jeans, white T-shirts, tennis shoes with no laces, and were extremely depressed and unhappy. Several guards watched them 24 hours a day from a glass booth strategically positioned so that the kids were never out of earshot or sight.

Almost all the boys attended my class, not because I was a great teacher, but because I didn't work for the state and therefore had no power over them. It was a diversion for them, to have someone like me visit them while they were doing their time in maximum security.

After a very simple lesson regarding fundamental principles of life like working instead of stealing, being honest instead of lying, respecting the sanctity of life, etc., I would stay another hour to do some individual counseling. The boys would frantically gather around me at the conclusion of our formal class saying "Brother Rushton, talk to me today, please talk to me!" I would try to give everyone a fair chance from day to day. I quickly learned however that what they were really saying, instead of "Talk to me, talk to me," was "Listen to me, please listen to me!" I would say very little during those counseling sessions but I would give them my undivided attention. It seemed to help. Their problems were so overwhelming I doubt that even Solomon could have had the wisdom to help solve them. In maximum security I learned how important it was and is to be truly listened to. I got the feeling that many of these disturbed young men had never truly been listened to by a significant adult in their lives. Sad to say, many of these young men died violent and premature deaths or ended up in the state penitentiary. No, they didn't live happily ever after because I listened to them, I hate to report, but at least for a few hours of their lives in maximum security, somebody truly listened to them and it was a soothing balm for their harrowed up souls if only for a brief period of time.

I think perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our spouses, children, and our friends, is to truly listen to them, giving them our undivided attention. Turning off the TV, looking away from our computer screen, closing the book or leaving an important unfinished task to listen to a loved one will convey love like few other things can.

In a wonderful talk that strikes a chord with me (Ensign, May 1991) about the importance of listening, Elder Russell M. Nelson, among other things counseled:

"A wise father once said, “I do a greater amount of good when I listen to my children than when I talk to them...The time to listen is when someone needs to be heard...Parents with teenage youth may find that time for listening is often less convenient but more important when young people feel lonely or troubled. And when they seem to deserve favor least, they may need it most...some couples seem not to listen to one another... If marriage is a prime relationship in life, it deserves prime time! Yet less important appointments are often given priority, leaving only leftover moments for listening to precious partners..."

Breathing or listening is a hard call. But just as breathing gives life to the body, so does listening give life to all the precious relationships we have in mortality.

Many years ago as I was lying in a hospital bed in the ICU of our local regional trauma center and learned that I had lost forever, in mortality anyway, the use of my physical body, I realized that the only thing that meant anything to me in that moment was the relationships I had with my family, my friends, and the Lord. Nothing else I had accomplished in my life, no worldly possession, no degrees or honors of men meant anything to me. If learning to listen better can strengthen all those relationships, how we ought to work at it! Are you listening?