Life Unwound: Re-learning rules of the road

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In conversation I sometimes notice how much I talk, and evidence exists of this verbal tendency. My brother Mike once told me at a meeting, “Shh, you’ll learn more from listening than by talking.”

Then there’s the guideline from ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, which I don’t always follow. “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

And, I started a master’s thesis themed on the therapeutic value of silence. I later chose another topic because the academic study of silence didn’t help me hush.

I have been either blessed or cursed with an ability to speak that often feels to me, and did to both of my introverted parents, like “too much.”

My son Zac and I have the skill of vocally cruising along, words bumper-to-bumper, at a hundred miles an hour. We have the gift of being able to step on the gas to fill silences. When our family sits together, my quiet husband notes, when he can sneak in a word without a collision, “I feel as if I’m stalled on an on-ramp waiting to merge, but can’t find a gap in the lanes.”

When Zac and I brake to catch a breath – which, happily, we also know how to do – he says, “Honk. Honk. Blink, blink.”

Zac then asks, “Dad, are you stuck at a stop sign? Trying to get onto the highway?”

He says, “waiting for an opening.”

We have different speech speed limits. I, the chatty one, wonder if I could wave him in the way I gesture, as I exit Interstate 295, for an approaching car to go ahead of me. Can I, even in rush hour, especially when rushed, signal another to join the flow?

I’ve been paying more attention to oncoming talkers, just as I learned to check mirrors in high school driver’s ed. As I recall, we should routinely scan all mirrors every five seconds. We should also check all mirrors before we slow down, while stopped, before we change lanes, and before and after turns. That’s the same as noticing the body language of other travelers in life’s journey, of observing their eye movements and noting their tones of voice. How often do we become aware of those around us? How often do we cut them off?

I stop race-talking more now, not only to take a gasping in-breath to fuel my next phrase, but to breathe fully, to give space. Remember the three-second rule to discern driving distance from the car ahead? Here it is: see when the car in front passes a fixed marker (like a pole). When that car’s rear bumper passes the object, count one one-thousand, two two-thousand, three three-thousand. If your car’s front bumper goes by the marker before you count three, increase the distance between you and the car ahead.

How about a three-second rule with people? Can we stop between sentences for 3 seconds? Or take three breaths?

To make room for others, we have to pause, look both ways, and stop at yellow lights. We have to drop out of our whirring thought-engines, which plan what to say next without hearing what’s being said now. We have to untangle the traffic jams in the head, idle more, shift into neutral, and lay off the accelerator.

Mike was right: we learn from shhhh, from slowing down to let others through. What we learn depends on how often we give way.

I am also learning from a new roundabout near my house. It has speed limit signs, signs that say Yield and signs with arrows pointing in directions away from me.

Hmm. Slow down, yield, and focus away from self. Great rules for the interpersonal road. They help us avert relational crashes as they keep us from conversational tailgating.

Falmouth author Susan Lebel Young is a retired psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher. She can be reached at sly313@aol.com or at www.susanlebelyoung.com.

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