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'Losing my voice taught me the secret of family communication'
Shailja Mehta
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November 05, 2007

About a year ago, my doctor feared that there were nodules on my vocal chords. "Your voice needs complete rest," he cautioned. "It's best if you don't speak at all for at least ten days. In fact, a month of silence should be perfect if you want to get rid of them completely."

Impossible, I thought. My family can't survive a day without my constant supervision and advice. Nevertheless, I had to follow my doctor's instructions, so I began carrying a small notebook in my pocket. When my husband or children asked me a question, I jotted down the answer and showed it to them.

I couldn't, however, make a habit of it. Mealtimes were always special to our family. At mealtimes, I scribbled comments on a sheet of paper and passed it around the table to my husband and sons. It was a cumbersome process and didn't work. Within a week, my zest to communicate with my family reduced and my interaction with them was limited to nodding my head to simple questions. My heart cried -- my family, my life was drifting away from me.

"Your throat is not healing," Dr Kathuria informed me on my next visit. "I am afraid the nodules must be surgically removed." Two operations followed and I remained speechless through all that time. "I don't want to scare you," he said, after everything was over, "but it is possible the nodules might return."

As I left the hospital premises, a strange fear overwhelmed me. What if my voice goes away? That night I cried in my bedroom alone. I'd always felt close to my family. Now I sensed a wall between us. I was desperate to tell my husband about it. I was desperate for my family's understanding and yet there was no way to communicate my need to them. I wondered how people get this far away from those they love most. My condition was a bad one, especially for a talkative person like me -- somebody who was so involved in the lives of loved ones, somebody who simply loved to organise, supervise and instruct.

In my silence, however, I began to ponder my life and think things through. Gradually, I realised that I had lost touch with my feelings a long time before my throat trouble forced me into silence. I also started to see what an uncommunicative person I'd become -- we spend so much time talking, but we never really communicate.

When I returned to Dr Kathuria for a check-up and the final verdict, deep down I was scared. To my surprise, he pronounced me cured. On my way back home, remembering the turmoil of the past few months, I decided that I would never revert to my old speaking habits. Those long, voiceless months taught me the secret of real communication, which I will now share with you:

~ Just be there to listen

One afternoon, during my period of silence, my elder son came home from school shouting, "I hate my teacher! I am never going back to school again!" If it weren't for my vocal cord problem, I would have responded with my own outburst -- "Of course you are, even if I have to drag you there myself!"

But that afternoon I was unable to react. In a few moments my son melted -- he came to me, put his head in my lap and poured out his heart. "Oh Mummy, I had to read my essay out loud in class and I mispronounced a word .My teacher corrected me and all the other kids laughed. I was so embarrassed.''

I wrapped my arms around him. He was quiet for few minutes and then suddenly he jumped out of my arms. "I am going out to play. Thanks, Mummy."

My presence and silence was all that my son needed. He didn't need my advice or criticism, he was hurt and he needed his mother to just listen to him. When your children are voicing their concerns, stop whatever you are doing and listen -- try to understand their point of view, even if that's difficult sometimes. Let them finish talking before you respond. If you do, they'll never come up with dialogues like "you never understand me" and "it's no use trying to talk to you". Half the battle will be won if only you listen.

~ Don't criticise or judge

I was visiting with a friend when her daughter breezed into the living room. "Hey Mom, what do you think of Mohit, the boy from next door?" My friend flared up immediately -- "I don't even want to hear his name!" she shouted. How often we as parents and spouses sabotage a conversation with quick comments or judgments! To encourage your child or partner to confide in you, check your negative reactions. This opens the door to communication, rather than slamming it shut.

~ Talk from the heart

Several years ago, I was at a local park just as a neighbourhood football game was ending. "Hey Daddy, did you see me score the goal?" a ten-year-old boy yelled to his father proudly.

"How come you lost the ball halfway through the game? You need more practice," replied his father. I observed that the enthusiasm of the boy was gone after his father's reaction. The boy had used the language of emotion; instead of sharing his son's enthusiasm, the father had responded intellectually. He meant well, but his response diminished his son's accomplishment. In the long run, the child probably found it difficult to share his happiness with his father.

On another occasion, I watched a five-year-old in my neighbourhood digging in her garden. "Mummy, look at this beautiful stone I found!" she called out to her mother. Her mother only looked at her disapprovingly and said, "You are getting all muddy!" The child's face fell, she threw away her surprise and trudged unhappily indoors.

~ Show your love

Actions are as important as the words you speak. Six-year-old Sana came running to sit on her mother's lap one day while her mother, a friend of mine, was engrossed in conversation with me. She scolded Sana and said that she was getting too big to sit in her lap. The little girl endured her private heartache and left the room.

Some parents, especially fathers, seem embarrassed by any show of emotion. Even more, they are afraid of spoiling their children with praise. Parents often worry about children developing an inflated opinion of themselves. We have no problem hugging our cuddly little babies, but unmade beds and deafening rock music are seldom huggable.

~ Don't assume

Many people have preconceived notions regarding their spouses or children that hamper communication. Never assume that you know another person's thoughts or feelings. Always talk things out to get to know a family member's take on things. When you start assuming things, that is when trouble starts brewing.

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