Friday, March 21, 2008

I'm Now A Bionic Woman

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am now a Bionic Woman. Unlike Jaime Summers, I’m neither a former professional tennis star, a teacher of middle school students nor am I an agent who periodically works for the Office of Strategic Intelligence. I do, however, have a cybernetic implant in my left ear that allows me to hear at levels that have been impossible for my ear to process for at least the past eight years.

Cochlear Implants have been available for over three decades. The technology is constantly improving and I am fortunate to be alive at time when my hearing can be restored. I had my cochlear implant surgery in December and three weeks later the implant was activated. The joy I felt at being able to hear people again is indescribable. My implant has only been activated for a little over two months now and I am amazed at how much I am able to hear. Turn off the processor however, and I am immediately almost completely deaf.

My loss of hearing and my now successful return to the hearing world have given me an interesting vantage point from which to view the world of conversation. I feel like I am in the hearing world but no longer completely of it. Perhaps because my return is so new to me, I’m still able to appreciate what a gift conversation is to me. For months after I finally realized that I had survived my cancer, I lived in an altered state. I remember one incident in particular. I was driving into San Francisco and I became stuck in traffic on the Oakland Bay Bridge. Previously, I would have been angry and impatient. However, that day, all I could think of was how great it was to be stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge. The sun was shining, the view was wonderful and most importantly I was alive! Unfortunately, when the situation repeated itself earlier this year, I wasn’t as appreciative of the moment. Now that I’m remembering the sweetness of my earlier experience, I will remind myself of it while sitting in my next traffic jam. It is possible that several years from now, I will yet again lose my heightened consciousness and appreciation for the gift of listening and being able to participate in conversations. I hope not and I will do everything I can to prevent my awareness from waning.

Because I have had some amount of hearing loss since I was a child, I learned early on to listen via facial expressions, tone of voice, energy shifts and other nonverbal cues. When I could hear, I was frequently impatient with people’s words when they contradicted their nonverbal communications to me. Now that I am so entranced by actually hearing the words that people are saying, I have slowed down and I’m not the impatient listener that I used to be in the past. I’m fascinated by both the congruence and incongruence of people’s words and nonverbal communication.

In slowing down, I’m able to ask about my perceived incongruence so that I can better understand the speaker. Even when messages are congruent, I’m learning to question whether I am projecting my own meaning upon what someone else is saying or whether I truly do understand the meaning they intend me to receive. My curiosity has allowed me to validate my perceptions or deepen my understanding when I am receiving what appear to be conflicting messages. This has created more depth and richer conversations. It feels like a risk at times but the intimacy gained from the discussion is well worth the price of stepping into my fear and coming out the other side.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Dead" and "Deaf" Sound The Same To Me

Because my hearing loss originated primarily in the upper registers, I experienced increasing difficulty in hearing high-pitched speech sounds. Consequently, words such as “dead” and “deaf” sounded the same to me. I could only determine which word the speaker was employing by knowing the specific context in which the word appeared in the conversation.

The first time I fully paid attention to this issue was in my oncologist’s office almost ten years ago. I had just been diagnosed with ovarian and endometrial cancers. The universe must have been having a grand “two for the price of one sale” that day. Never one to turn down a bargain, I took them both home. Fortunately, buyer’s remorse set in immediately and while I couldn’t return the diagnosis, my oncologist created the perfect blend of medications that eradicated both of my cancers.

While chemotherapy is frequently excellent at eliminating cancer, certain chemotherapy medications are highly ototoxic. In other words, the treatment that can save your life can also kill your ears. As part of my informed consent to take these medications, the doctor told me that hearing loss could be a possible side effect of my chemotherapy treatment. Because I had already begun to lose some hearing prior to my cancer diagnosis, I responded with the truth of my experience at that time. “Dead and deaf sound the same to me.”

I wasn’t necessarily being flip. Being deaf felt emotionally the same to me as being dead. Granted, I could not base this belief on any solid evidence. Obviously, I had never experienced either state. However, one should never underestimate the power of a vivid imagination. Still, when it came to choosing life or death, I knew that I would choose life no matter what the cost. I prayed for the best outcome on all fronts and opted for the treatments. I was lucky. My hearing loss was easily fixed for several years by increasingly strong hearing aids. However, in 2005, I started to experience a more precipitous drop in my ability to hear and thus to understand people.

Most of us have a favorite coping mechanism in the face of loss and mine is denial. I expected to have hearing problems throughout my older years but certainly losing my hearing in my late forties and early fifties seemed premature to me. Besides, I didn’t immediately become deaf on receiving my chemo treatments so I must have managed to avoid the ototoxic effects of the treatment. Right? Wrong!

In a later post, I can tell you about all of the gyrations and adaptations that I went through in order to hear other people for as long as I could. However, since conversations include two or more people, I wasn’t the only one turning myself inside out in order to converse. I was fortunate that many people were willing to stretch themselves to accommodate my loss but I know that it wasn’t easy for any of us.

Finally, in 2007, reality struck and I realized that I truly was deafened. Because it became so hard to communicate with people in any normal way, I began to remove myself from situations where conversation would be expected. I isolated more and more until I basically communicated with only a very small circle of friends and family who were either willing to write what they were saying to me in the moment or endlessly repeat words I could no longer understand. For an extrovert like myself, becoming deaf was a deadening process, although happily not at all the same as I had previously imagined death to be.

It was during this time that I realized that conversations are vital. They are absolutely necessary regardless of whether they occur verbally, in some version of sign language or whether they are partially communicated via writing. To be without conversation stripped me of an important way of knowing myself and deprived me of creating shared meaning with others. I felt exiled from the rest of humanity and myself.

Now that I can hear again, I am passionate about the value and impact of conversations that enliven, educate and elicit our true selves. I never want to take my ability to hear, pay attention and listen for granted again. While cancer taught me the value of life, deafness is teaching me the value of connection, knowing and being known, understanding and being understood. I don’t think that I’m unique in yearning for these things. I’m guessing that being connected, known and understood allow us each to love ourselves and thus to connect to, respect and accept all other living beings.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Welcome to Vital Conversations

Today is the first day of the Vital Conversations blog. Welcome. I look forward to engaging in vital conversations that hone our listening skills, improve our interpersonal communication and deepen the intimacy that we experience in our lives. In the spirit of “we teach what we need to learn”, I’m embarking on writing this blog to deepen my own listening and conversational wisdom as well as to share what I know with you.

So just what is a vital conversation? A vital conversation is simply one that is life enhancing and life sustaining. Vital also frequently connotes some sense of urgency and necessity. I picked this word deliberately for this double association. What is more urgent and necessary than something that is life enhancing and sustaining? Given that we are all social and interdependent beings, a vital conversation can always benefit its participants. Vital conversations leave us with deepened knowledge of ourselves as well as a heightened appreciation and understanding of the other person’s experience. Because vital conversations are relational, they hold us in connection regardless of whether our conversations end in agreement or not. Our opinions don’t take precedence over our need to connect.

Listening is an essential component of vital conversations. For something that is so important to our emotional and physical survival, it continues to surprise me that we are given so little training in how to effectively listen to others. One of the main reasons that I decided to start this blog is that over the past several years I have lost more and more of my ability to hear and consequently to listen. Technology has returned my ability to hear and I no longer take listening for granted. I will be writing more about this in future entries. I intend to use this blog to explore the practice of listening and to improve my own listening skills.

Of course, listening is only one half of any vital conversation. Response to what we have heard is necessary as well. What kinds of responses best support vital conversations? Authentic, non-projective, present-centered responses usually seem to work well. It’s not always easy to respond in this way especially when I feel anxious, angry or overly excited about my own position. I’m also very aware of the sense of disconnection that I feel when I don’t feel like I have been adequately heard or understood. I want to explore and practice responding in ways that more consistently encourage vital conversations.

All conversations create emotional fields. If you are attentive, you can pick up the energy that is being generated by the conversation. Vital conversations inherently generate positive fields. These positive emotional fields are inviting and inclusive. They encourage curiosity and exploration. I’m interested to look at my own contributions and what I contribute to conversations that either promote or obstruct a positive emotional field.

I recently watched “Death at Funeral” which has a scene toward the end of the film that illustrates the impact of a change in the emotional field quite well. A son tries several times to deliver a proper eulogy for his father only to be interrupted by a string of unusual events. The final interruption is so over the top that the son finally gives up his prepared remarks and genuinely speaks from his heart. The power of his change in attitude is palpable onscreen. Frankly, prior to this scene I was becoming bored with the film. The character’s shift to authenticity immediately grabbed my attention and touched me in a way that the rest of film failed to do.

In my next entry I’ll tell you more about why having vital conversations is so personally important to me these days and why I believe that they should be important to you. Thanks for listening. I look forward to engaging in vital conversations with you in the future.