Twelve Blocks to Listening this Christmas

Are you imaging a happy and stress free holiday season? I’ve been thinking about how to make this happen, and mindful of the need to limit disagreements, I’ve decided to focus here on communication skills, specifically listening skills (very useful if you are an expat and separated geographically).

I’m used to listening intently in the therapy room, but suspect I am not so good at practicing those skills in my non professional life. My husband has been know to say “If you’d be quiet for a moment and listen… “ Oops.

musical christmas

All good conversations being with listening and I guess, any time of year is a fine time to hone our communication skills? The benefit is when we feel listened to we don’t get so cross.

The ancient song Twelve Days of Christmas, is about gifts given on the twelve days running up to Christmas. You’ll remember it goes:

‘On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree.’

There are some unusual sounding presents;

‘Twelve Lords a leaping’

In the spirit of that much loved song I would advocate planning, in good time, presents for those important ‘others’ in our lives. To minimize stress, I try and maintain a sense of humour, it can also be a useful device for deflecting those tense moments that can epitomize family gatherings.

With usually far flung family ensconced for extended periods and children subjected to adults, and vice versa, frankly anything that brings harmony to the scene will be welcome. And let us not forget the hours of extra chores most of us embark on at this time of year.

Sadly those enforced hours together, will for some couples, be the end of the line. I’m thinking of the spike in divorce rates immediately after the holidays; the sombre fact is there are more divorces in the New Year than any other time.

However, before I get too carried away and become curmudgeonly, let me state that I do want to be happy and joyful, as befits the season, so to minimise discord would be helpful.

I have compiled Twelve Listening Blocks for this festive season, the hope being that respectful, clear communication will improve relationships, keeping negativity in check.

Have a look through the list and consider what rings true for you. This is not an opportunity to berate yourself, we are all guilty of at least some of these behaviours, its about raising awareness and choosing to stop, if you feel inclined.


  1. You are second guessing what the person is thinking instead of listening fully.
  2. Notice the pull to compare stories, “oh yes that happened to me too”. I’m guilty of this one. At least make sure let the other person finish telling their story first before you tell yours!
  3. Finding yourself practicing in your mind what you are going to say next instead of listening.
  4. Allowing yourself to be triggered and letting your thoughts drift off from the conversation.
  5. Personalising everything the other person says, again, over identifying with your own experience.
  6. Selective hearing, filtering – only listening to what grabs you.
  7. Discriminating, making judgements about the other person without hearing them out.
  8. Problem Solving; telling them what they “should” do. I recommend limited use of the word should. If they ask for advice, make sure they’ve finished speaking first and rather than telling them what they should do, you might want to ‘own’ your words saying “I would … “ that way you won’t get the blame if the advice doesn’t turn out well.
  9. Discounting the other person. For example, by not accepting a compliment when it is offered.
  10. Hanging on to the conviction that you are in the right. Try to be open to the other’s point of view, listening to their perspective.
  11. Trying to outdo the other person by putting them down. Even witty put downs are not funny for the person who is the butt of the joke and can create emotional distance. Placating and patronizing are also subtle techniques we may employ as put downs.
  12. Changing the subject inappropriately, just because you suddenly feel like it. There are times however, when changing the subject can be a way of moving on. For example, when an argument is going around in circles, the option to change the subject can be openly acknowledged “Shall we leave it there?”.

Whatever you are doing in the month of December I hope it is a happy one for you. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog Laura J Stephens in 2014. On Twitter? Join me @LauraJStephens


Messages: The communications Skills Book by Matthew McKay, 2009


Got an ‘Elephant in the Room’?

Is there an ‘elephant’ in the room? Perhaps something unsaid, you know the kind of thing – everyone is aware of it but no one dare speak of it? All eyes cast downwards; you wish you could leave the room…

It may or may not be your ‘elephant’, either way you are aware of the unconscious pressure to avoid speaking of it; perhaps you feel the invitation to collude by keeping quiet. Would you like some tips on how to come out and say it? A perfectly reasonable challenge (and one I’ve asked myself) is why do anything? Because, avoidant behaviour can contribute to the ‘elephant in the room’ phenomena, and that gets in the way of solving problems!

How would it feel to speak your truth; say it how it is? What is preventing you – might someone get angry or just pay lip service to your protestations and simply carry on as before – is that your expectation?

It happened to me when I had arrived on a foreign assignment to Houston and was unable to say, “I’m very unhappy and I’m struggling to keep going, I need help!” (just for the record, the problem wasn’t really Houston, it was the isolation and loss of identity – nice). Taking refuge in my journal and later my book, I wrote:

‘I was so cross I hardly dare show it. Part of me knew it would leak out eventually anyway and the broken things were somehow a metaphor for how I was feeling’.

No shortage of elephants there then!

When we fail to bring to the attention of others how we really feel, nothing changes and we can become stuck, although journaling my feelings certainly helped bring them into awareness.elephant in the room

Work place situations and long standing relationships usually harbour their share of ‘unspeakables’. The dynamics will vary, what I’ve noticed is that over time we may grudgingly accept behaviour than impacts us and yet we feel powerless to change. For example, the person who can be relied upon to be consistently late – we all know at least one person. Have you given up mentioning it and find yourself anticipating their late arrival, planning and working around their tardiness! When they arrive you’re a tad miffed but don’t say anything for fear of confrontation, you don’t want to cause offence and yet it is your feelings that are not taken into account. That’s what’s lingering in the atmosphere; the big, grey, nobody is talking about me, but I’m right here all the same, flappy eared, elephant.

So, perhaps its time to acknowledge and try what my friend Katie Hodgson calls,‘getting your moose on the table’!That would involve saying how you feel in a grown up kind of way (ie without an authoritarian voice that sounds like a dominant parent or even a simpering, wimpy kid!). After all, you want the person to hear you, not immediately feel defensive.

If that sounds like too much, try writing down what you would like to change or share, chose a completely secure place, and see if that helps shift things.

If you decide to go ahead and talk about your elephant or manage the moose, here are some tips. You may have some of your own.

Tips for Speaking About It

Tip 1: Ensure you have considered what you hope to achieve and the benefit to others; the pros and cons.

Tip 2: Prepare what you want to say in advance, choosing your words carefully.

Tip 3: Pick a good setting to have the conversation, one where you won’t be interrupted or over heard. This can be difficult to achieve if you live far away and can’t have a conversation face to face. It needs some thought; can it wait until you next meet or might it be possible to use technology to facilitate this? Do you at least need to schedule the conversation so the other person has plenty of time to listen and react?

Tip 4: Be clear and unambiguous. Resist the temptation to embroider or you may find yourself not saying what you set out to say.

Tip 5: If you are looking for someone else to change, try to focus on facts and behavior and impact on you/others. Avoid insults, apportioning blame or criticism; the recipient is more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.

Tip 6: If you are imparting seriously bad news remember that the other person probably won’t hear much of what you have to say after you’ve said it. You can always suggest a follow up discussion when the new information has had a chance to settle.

Tip 7: What is the positive? Look for solutions together if at all possible – share the task if appropriate.

Tip 8: Lastly, keep in mind the well tried technique of the ‘feedback sandwich’; beginning with something positive (a slice of bread) then the difficult news (the sandwich filling) and finishing on a positive (the other piece of bread).

Forgive and Forget

What does it mean to be a friend, relative or lover, when their negative behavior distances you? My next blog post will explore the nature of forgiveness and what it means to ‘forgive and forget’.

Like to learn more about ‘An Inconvenient Posting, an expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ see Aisha Ashraf’s recent review at her blog Aisha is also a regular columnist at and contributor to Global Living Magazine.

Visit my author page at

Don’t say it!

Don’t say it!  Is the message that floods my head when the truth feels unspeakable. Perhaps you experience that too? Might you be curious to learn more about identifying your unspeakables and maybe even how to go about sharing some of them?

By bringing to the fore that which annoys us/burdens us, or plays out as resentment for another, we have a better chance of processing it and in doing so we can unburden ourselves and let go of the past. We know that suppressing difficult feelings can lead to increased stress levels and ultimately ill health so this can only be a good thing.

Below are some steps you can follow to help bring into awareness those blind spots we all have; the things we find it difficult to talk or think about, even when we are aware of them.Hand image Let Go

So should we verbalise our unpeakables? Would it help? That is for us to judge individually, I think the key is to begin by identifying them and then consider whether to give them a voice. Unlike the ‘Unspeakables’ in the Harry Potter books; Wizards and Witches who work in the Department of Mysteries, you do have a choice! It is important to remember that, because sometimes it doesn’t feel like we do.

Firstly, a minor confession. This week, I was returning from London and having dashed for the train, I was thirsty as kitchen roll. I tried to quickly unscrew the lid of the bottle of Diet Coke I’d just purchased. Gripping really hard, my hands wouldn’t turn the white plastic top; it would not budge. I sighed to myself and sat back, puffing with frustration. The message rebounding in my head its just not happening. I tried again (sometimes I can make it work and get the grip I need using my sleeve) but the sharp pains shooting up my thumb and into my wrist were warning me to stop, now.

There were several people I could ask for help, so what was stopping me? Answer; mostly my vanity – I didn’t want to admit to a stranger I have a medical problem that effects my thumb joints, the thought was strangely revealing and not in a good way.

Moments later, another more sensible part of me took over and I got up and asked an older guy if he would mind opening the bottle for me. As is often the case he was only too happy to respond to my request for help. Back in my seat, sipping the sweet fizzy liquid, I smiled at the irony of my own process, realising I had uncovered one of my own ‘unspeakables’.

Last month, I mentioned the power of journaling to unleash the thoughts and feelings we can’t verbalize. Don’t say it, write it, is one way of managing the emotional material that troubles us. Taking things to the next stage and actually speaking about them can be life changing, in a positive way. Equally there are some things best left unsaid, so on that basis, I would proceed with a healthy dollop of caution!

Do you have any ‘unspeakables’?

Not sure if you have any? Grab a piece of paper or if you prefer just try this in your head.

Step 1: Begin by thinking of some facts (try for three) that you always avoid revealing to anyone. A secret from your past perhaps? Resist the urge to censor what comes up.

Step 2: When you’ve got some things in mind, imagine that you have to reveal them.

Step 3: How does that feel?

Step 4: If you had to reveal your unspeakable truth, is there something you could manage to disclose in confidence but something else you definitely would keep secret at all costs?

Step 5: Think; might it be a relief to unburden yourself? Perhaps it would not seem such a big revelation to someone else. Maybe your load would be made lighter by sharing? What is the nature of the block; is it fuelled by embarrassment or shame.

Step 6: Remember that your unspeakable truth may not be a big deal for someone else and vice versa. It is okay to at least consider that prospect? Might there be someone who you would really trust and safely confide in?

Still think you don’t have any ‘unspeakables’? Below are some topics we often avoid discussing in a social setting for fear of causing offence. That habit can be carried over into our personal relationships and sometimes it’s partly down to cultural norms. In that climate, airing problems can feel impossible and ultimately block our progress. If you are an expat living outside your host culture, the following list may be even more problematic to negotiate:

Sex, money in general/poverty/affluence, political affinity, body shape/weight (fat, thin etc), body odours, health/medical problems, cultural differences, gender, facial hair (women!), graphic details of trauma, addictions, depression, death and so on…

If you would like to hear a little more about the nature of shame and vulnerability, click here for a helpful video by Brené Brown.

In my next blog I will look at the phenomena of ‘the elephant in the room’ and offer some tips on how to help share something important that feels difficult to impart…