Thursday, November 30, 2006

Listening -- the Art of Music and Communication

Do you love singing? I do. However, I was discouraged years ago when I tried singing out loud. Imagine yourself being young, shy and nervous in front of people. How would you feel when someone teases and criticizes your singing? I felt so hurt and rejected that I dared not sing again, that is, until I attended church in 1989. Not only could I freely sing among the congregation, a year later I joined our church choir.

I have not stopped singing ever since. In September 2001, I even joined a joint choir in the Bay Area called CCCMIW (which stands for Chinese Christian Church Music Institute for Worship). Our conductor, Dr. Richard Lin and his choir is an inspiration! One high point of my life as a mother is singing Messiah by Handel in Mandarin with our ABC son at the St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco in 2003.

When not listened to by their parents, children gradually lose their natural voice. Some of them get angry and yell back in power struggles; others hold everything inside and become more and more depressed, withdrawn and isolated. Either ways, they have given up talking with parents. Communication channels are broken.

Mignon McLaughlin, journalist once said, "We hear only half of what is said to us, understand only half of that, believe only half of that, and remember only half of that." When our minds are distracted (e.g. "hey, what is there for lunch?") or we are preparing for a comeback (e.g. "no no no, you get it wrong!"), we are at best half listening. Even worse, we interrupt someone in mid sentence. In frustration, they interrupt us back hoping their points can be understood. And the vicious cycle continues.

Extremely important for human relationships, communication is more than talking. That is why the Bible says, "My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19).

Research shows that only 7 to 10% of our interpersonal exchanges is the actual spoken words. The remaining messages are nonverbal communication through body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. If our goal is for someone to understand our message, getting angry, yelling and nagging never really help.

Music is powerful. In June, I watched a segment about Rex Lewis-Clack, a musical savant on CBS 60 Minutes. The show also features 11-year-old Rachel Flowers and 26-year-old Derek Paravicini who are in similar situations. Rex's incredible piano talent coexists with blindness and severe mental impairment. What touched my heart the most is the dedication of Rex's mother (a Stanford Grad), and the music teachers and mentors for those young people. It is amazing how human brains work and how some people persevere in spite of great difficulties.

God has a special purpose for each of our lives. Each kid has some uniqueness waiting to be discovered and encouraged. The stories of Rex, Rachel and Derek showed us how music opens the door to their brains and provide a way for them to communicate with this world. What is even more important is that every kid needs love and care from one or more persons to help open that door! Keep in mind the principle, "People will not care about what you are saying unless they feel that you really care about them." One way to care is to listen.

Because of cultural differences, parents born overseas often feel disrespected when our ABC children and teenagers talk. We label their expressions as "talk backs" even when they honestly want to share something from their hearts. We all know some parents who answer every "why?" in exactly the same way: "It is, because I say so!" Imagine how such patterns at home could interfere with your children's educational or occupational achievement, or social communication.

Do you have a child, a teen, or even an adult child not talking with you? May be they have lost their voice. They need to feel accepted, loved, respected and safe to speak up again. Depending on your situation, you may need to do some intentional repair work (e.g. filling their emotional tank, asking for forgiveness)! It may take hours, days, or much longer. Give their voice back and start from there.

The best time to talk with your children is when you are driving, eating or doing something fun together. Try listening with focus attention using eye contact, open-ended questions and no interruption. When your kids and teenagers trust that you will truly listen, they will start talking. Don't be surprised when they open their mouths and tell you something you don't want to hear. Whatever they say, do not interrupt, judge, defend, or blame. Just listen! When they are done talking, name their feelings, appreciate their sharing, and show empathy.

At a recent choir rehearsal, Dr. Lin said, "The art of music is the art of listening." We listen to each other and the piano to harmonize and balance our voices and sounds. We attentively watch our conductor's eyes, facial expression, arms, hands, and body movement to hear and understand his non-verbal direction for us to make beautiful music in one accord. Similarly, communication at home, school, work and church will improve when we learn the art of listening to each other and to follow Christ.

Copyright © 2006 Winnis Chiang, Parenting ABC