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Letting go of ourselves

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August 1, 2012

By Jeanne Hunt

Don’t you just dread meetings? A great meeting, say business communications experts, should last no more than one hour. Yet, most of the ones that I attend seem to go on and on, with the average meeting time being three hours. It seems that everyone wants to put in his or her two cents’ in the discussion. And, for the most part, everyone just waits for a turn to talk, and much of the discussion has no bearing on the topic at hand.


My favorite bad meeting ever took place at a parish council meeting of a church where I worked. Every month Ethel Rita, the representative from the seniors’ group, would report on who died. Her report went something like this: “Fred and Ruth died this month, but their slots have been filled with the Mahoney sisters who joined the seniors’ group because they want to go on Father Jim’s trip to Amish Country.” Ethel Rita and the rest of us at that meeting needed a more concerted effort to think about the needs of others and the business at hand and not let distracting and irrelevant comments and opinions take over the discussion. In hindsight, I wish I and others had acted responsibly to make the parish meeting more effective.


At a recent class on business communication at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, the course instructor challenged her students (my son among them) to consider the “You Attitude” as they prepared to work in the corporate world. After a few classroom exercises, it became apparent to the instructor that these college students struggled to keep the conversation from being all about themselves. She witnessed “I feel” or “I think” statements that began every sentence. She explained to her class that the key to successful communication in the business world requires focusing on the other person who is speaking.


As my son shared his classroom experience with me, he admitted that the communication experience was an eye-opener for him, not only in his business life, but in his relationships with friends and family. Then, he lowered the boom and said, “Mom, even you talk too much about yourself, and you are really not listening to me.”


I was so taken aback that I blurted, “What? When have I not listened to you? I remember when I was a child….”


“See what I mean,” said Mr. Smart-pants, “you couldn’t wait to talk about yourself.”
His point was well taken.


We live in a self-centered world. Most folks unconsciously believe that they are the center of the universe. The internal conversations we have support the belief that what we want and need is more important than what others need. That conversation sounds something like this: “The other people can wait in traffic, but I am going to drive in the emergency lane because I have a tee time.” Or, “I’m not taking a turn volunteering at the parish festival. It’s too hot, and I hate selling raffle tickets.” Or, “When is my wife going to stop complaining about money? I’m looking at her, but I’m not hearing a word she is saying.”


As I began to pay attention to my own conversations with people, I couldn’t find that “You Attitude” anywhere. Like most everyone else, I simply waited to get my turn to talk. If one person enjoyed a great vacation, I chimed in about how my trip to the Smoky Mountains was even better. When one woman complained about her struggle with weight loss, I interrupted with my story of diet and exercise attempts.


The “You Attitude” is right up Jesus’ alley. He tells us to love others as ourselves. He suggests that we lay down our lives for the other. It is apparent that the kingdom of God is grounded in this self-less attitude. We are even told that giving our lives away for the sake of love will make us happier than we ever imagined.


Taking this attitude up a notch, I started looking at the Gospels for hints about how Jesus behaved and whether He talked about himself too much; after all, He had the perfect excuse: He needed to let folks know that He was the Messiah. Surprisingly, more often than not, Jesus speaks in a parable or reflects on someone else’s words. Only when someone asks Him directly about what He thinks, does Jesus talk about himself. It seems Jesus wants us to discover His identity by meeting Him heart to heart. In the most profound sense, Jesus encourages us to adopt a “You Attitude” as we encounter Him. It is more important to let go of ourselves and allow Jesus Christ to be the center of our lives.
The consequences of adopting the “You Attitude” can be life-changing. Imagine a husband and wife who really listen to each other’s point of view — without judgment or retort. That marriage will take a giant step forward in communications and understanding. Imagine how the argument with a child who doesn’t want to go to Sunday Mass or finish homework could end if the parent listened and began to see the true cause of the child’s discontent. Or, imagine what would happen if we allowed an elderly relative to share her reminiscences as if we are entering her world and hearing a tired story for the first time. In each of these situations, the “You Attitude” invites us to leave ourselves and enter the mind and spirit of the other.


What I ask is that you give the “You Attitude” a try. For an entire day, give up speaking in the first-person — avoid using “I” or “me” or “my” in your conversation. Then make a wholehearted attempt to really listen to those who speak to you. Whatever you do, don’t turn the conversation back to yourself. At first, you will struggle with the “You Attitude.” But soon you will begin to realize the heart of the matter — that those you love need your compassion and support, and those who struggle need the healing that comes from your caring attention.


There is a grace in the “You Attitude” that goes far beyond business communication, unless our business is “thy kingdom come.” I challenge you to adopt the “You Attitude” and practice it, even during parish meetings. If you can get those meetings to conclude within one hour, that would be a real miracle!

Hunt is a nationally recognized catechetical leader and author.

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