Reality Check: The Attentive Gardener

“The best fertilizer is the footsteps of the gardener.” Why? What is it about a gardener’s footsteps that would help a garden grow?
While I fall far short from being an enthusiastic gardener, even I know that it’s hard to walk through a planted area without pulling out a stray weed, picking off a dead blossom, or splashing some water on the parched spots. This is hardly attentive gardening, but even a little attention is far, far more helpful than no attention at all.
Regular attention is even better. When we make it a habit, even basic care makes a difference. The garden reflects this reality. The plants grow or they don’t, the weeds overtake or they don’t; the bugs thrive or they don’t.
By now, you may be thinking that this column isn’t really about gardens. Attention—regular attention—makes a difference in many things, including our relationships.
But there are differences between relationships and gardens, of course. For example, in a garden, lack of attention tends to show up with clear evidence. We can see when weeds are growing, an invasive species is moving in, or flowers are listless due to lack of food.
In a relationship, we may not recognize signs of inattention, even when there are symptoms. For example, like weeds in a garden, bickering and arguing can take up valuable time and energy that could be used for more productive activities.
Here’s another example: Negative influences can enter a relationship but like many invasive species in a garden, they are not always easy to recognize. They appear to be friendly at first, but having gained a foothold, they take over, draining joy and replacing it with fear, anger or resentment.
How can we guard against this?
We can, in a sense, take a regular walk through the “garden” of the relationship. Even if it seems to be plugging along ok, we can give it some attention. How?
Mike Bechtel has several practical suggestions for how to effectively pay attention. A simple one is to focus on what you are doing. Put the phone out of sight. Don’t allow interruptions. For this moment, for this conversation, focus on listening and talking to the other person.
Another suggestion is patience, and I know that I am not the only person who finds it challenging to be patient. Bechtel has a practical suggestion: If you have a limited amount of time for your conversation, start by saying that. Then you’ll both know the limitations. Set an alarm so you won’t feel the need to distract yourself by checking the time. This may sound cold and clinical, but it frees you to focus without distraction during the time that you do have.
Finally, listen. Some of us have a strong inclination to want to solve someone’s problems. We want to make suggestions (and they are always such good ones!) Instead, consider whether our opinion is needed, or whether what’s needed is simply a listening ear. Sometimes people just want to be heard, to talk something through, to work it out in conversation. Our most effective role sometimes is just to listen. If you’re not sure, ask “Would you like a suggestion?” If the answer is no, then you’ll know.
Even well-established relationships can benefit from regular upkeep. Like the footsteps of the gardener, a little attention can make for a better harvest.
What do you think?

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