Wednesday, January 6, 2010
The Art of Listening (Tell an Old Story; Tell a New One)
"I'm not asking for your advice, I'm asking for your support."~ Anonymous
"If you help me, I will not come to you again." ~ Anonymous
Recently, two different people in my life said the above to me. They came to tell me a story, their story, of hurt and pain, of frustration and fear, and they wanted me to listen. They did not want me to respond, except of course, for the occasional nod or knowing empathic wince. They did not want any advice, ideas, feedback, suggestions, interpretations, analysis or direction. They did not even want to get out of the bad feelings really. They just wanted to talk. They wanted to tell their story. And they did not want to know or study anything about their story. Not where it originates from in their history. Not whether their story is really their story, or really their mother's or father's story. They did not want to know what their own part in the story was, or is, or how the things they've done to help themselves survive all these years may now be helping to stifle growth and progress. They did not want my help. Clearly. They just wanted my good ears.
I am a very cooperative sort. Usually. And of course, in my office I am used to doing a lot of listening. I do listen with more than my ears when I am working, of course. I listen with my gut, my inventory of training, and of course my heart. I listen to words. I listen to cadence. I listen to my own body. I will never forget one session, many years back, when a client was telling me a story from her childhood and suddenly my feet were very very cold. I remember wondering about it, and then asking her if there was something frightening, show stopping almost, (cold feet), about her story. What poured forth was another story then. A story about being harmed and helpless, terrified and being hesitant even, to bring the memories into the therapy room, all these years later, as an adult.
It is not always easy to listen, to just listen, or to listen well. Listeners experience all kinds of feelings. Especially if we are listening to someone we love. Or hate. Or are very angry with, afraid of, or dependant on. We are not accustomed to listening for someones fears, or for their beliefs. We are not necessarily accustomed to listening for our reactions to what we are hearing.
Of course their are the basics of good listening. Focused, intentional non verbals, eye contact, head nodding, or shaking, or tilting. Wincing, leaning forward, smiling. And the verbals: repetition of things the speaker has said (parroting: "I am upset" "You are upset"), encouragers: "hmm," "really," "yes, " "oh," "wow." (and more of course.) Benign questions, too, help people talk, and listeners listen. "What time did that happen?" "Who else was there?" "What were your thoughts?" Open ended, gentle, curious and light.
For couples, especially, it is challenging to listen to each other. To listen without wanting to help, or solve, or comment. Or refute, rebuff, remind. Ditto for parents and teens. How is it that we can stay quiet and tolerate all of our own feelings as they are bubbling up inside us?
Not everyone gives me the instructions that my two friends did. And sometimes, someone who wants to talk also really does want help. Suggestions may be okay, welcome even. As are new ideas, or comfort. Though I tend to check first, if they are wanted, before I venture out. With interpretations too, because they can be hurtful, of course, and we are not always ready to hear bits of truth about ourselves, even if it would benefit us, or our relationships. And besides, who is to say that the listener is correct, or is not filtering his or her thoughts through their own lenses of pain, or filtering things through their own story. Either way, its not easy to learn about ourselves, especially if part of our story is self attack, self loathing, or hopelessness.
How well, even, do we listen to ourselves? A friend of mine once told me that she likes to lay down sometimes, on her own couch, and just talk out loud. She asked if I thought she was a kook. Not only didn't I think so, but some schools of thought actually encourage this for healing. Talk to Gd, or to yourself, or, as one person once told me, to me, her therapist, even when I am not really there. Somehow, she felt better, just telling her story as many times as she needed to tell it.
Truth is, at some point, good listening is helpful all on its own, with no brilliant responses needed. We can start to tell new stories about ourselves once we have told the old ones well enough and to good ears. We can rewrite at least some of our old scripts and create better feelings and easier times. It is not always easy to tolerate someones pain, or what may sometimes seem to be their irrational fear or anger. Its harder still if we feel blamed, or responsible, or charged to fix things. And even more difficult if we have heard the same story too many times, for too many years, without any progress.
We may not always want to give our support, and certainly not our agreement or acceptance, if what we are hearing does not make sense or seems harmful, but much of the time, if we can manage to say little and save our story for someone else's good ears, we may doing the best service of all. Good listening is a precious gift. It conveys understanding and company, acceptance, serenity and hope. It echos of sweet mothering, of being held, tended to and acknowledged. It has the power to heal and to change lives. Its hard to accept when someone wants to, or needs to hold on to their story, or does not want to study it, or try to alter it. But all things in good time. All things at the right time. And in the meantime, if we can offer up some calm in someones storm, we may be surprised at the results. Listening benefits the listener as well. By listening well to others we can learn to listen well to and understand ourselves better, to go easier, practice grace, and pick up clues about our own stories. We can learn to tell new ones, to create new hope, resiliency and potential. And this, I confess, I find to be wonderful.