It’s a tricky thing.
Have you ever shouted at anyone, “You’re not LISTENING to me!!” or had someone shout it at you in frustration? (Partners, parents and children are prime suspects here…)
I wrote in my post a while back that people can only hear you from where they are and the very week I posted it Life organised me a week-long workshop in understanding this better. Except that my post had been about speaking and being heard – my week was about listening.
I belong to a magnificent group of women who get together each month to dialogue around our lived experiences of race in this beautiful, complex, racially-fraught country of ours. This month the topic turned to how others hear us – hey, what a surprise, I just wrote about that! We spoke about what happens when we don’t really listen to someone’s experience – to what they are actually saying and why they are saying it – but we rather impose our own meaning and our own experience onto what they are saying. We do it to each other all the time and it really invalidates the person speaking. I tell you about my experience and you say, “Oh the same thing happened to me. Let me tell you…” and there goes my story and my experience, unheard, unseen, devalued. It’s painful and leaves the person feeling alone. Needless to say, we white folks do this to black folks ALL the time – often in the name of ‘relating’ to their story. But that’s a whole other blog post.
Not being heard is so painful and lonely – and threatening to our survival – that when it happens to us we attack or recoil. That’s where the primal scream of “You’re not LISTENING to me!” comes from. We NEED to be heard to feel safe with someone.
As these women I care for discussed how awful it feels when someone does that, I sat with intense discomfort because that very afternoon I had not listened to someone in that same painful way. I was shocked when it happened and uncomfortable after because it felt so out of character for me – but sitting there hearing about its impacts made me feel really bad. On the bright side, I listened more closely because of its relevance to me.
Then the next morning someone I admire said, “I’m working on listening to people better.”
Is someone trying to tell me something?
I’ve always considered myself a good listener – it’s my job to listen well and listen richly. To really HEAR where the other person is and to understand from their point of view. I love listening this way – because I love people. In fact I went to study psychology because I was already always listening to friends when they wanted to process things into consciousness. I figured if I love it this much and I’m going to carry on doing it, I may as well make it my career.
So I listen well – but that’s in my work where, as much as possible, my ego and wounding doesn’t interfere with the way I listen and hold the other person’s story. With my own ‘stuff’ put aside for a while I can fully listen to them and not make it about me.
Apparently in my personal life, where I feel like its more about me, my listening skills may need some attention.
Why IS it so difficult to listen to someone, to REALLY listen and hear their experience from their point of view without trying to argue it, negate it, relate to it, reassure them…?
Because it threatens our inner world, that’s why. It challenges our story as we know it and that scares us. “I think this but now you tell me for you it’s that? I don’t want to know that. That means I have to look at myself. I’ll have to see things I might not like. That means I have to change. I don’t like change, it’s not comfortable. I’m afraid of the unknown. I don’t know how to be in this new way. I’ll be shown up, exposed. No. I’d rather not listen to you.” We do this with strangers as well as with our children and partners and bosses…
Any reaction, other than, “Oh. I hear that is your story and your experience.” is merely a way of blocking their story to make ourselves feel better.
Anything like, “You shouldn’t take it to heart” or “That’s also happened to me” or “I’m sure it wasn’t that bad” is imposing your own fear of change onto the person telling their tale. Isn’t that funny? We just think we are being ‘nice’.
Listening well – to your child or partner or colleague or parent – means being willing to change.
So after being tossed about in this topic for a week, I am smoothing down my unruly hair and turning my attention to really listening more. To the people I love and people I just meet. I want to open and learn new ways in my life. I choose to listen and be changed and feel exposed and unsure and know that I am safe anyway. I choose to allow myself to be lovingly held by The Unknown.
How about you?