September 25, 2012
Here’s my take. I think everybody, including myself, pretty much sucks at it! Okay, this is said with a bit of tongue in cheek. But if I get really honest–at least about my own skill level–there’s some truth here.
If my goal is to connect meaningfully with other human beings—and personally my heart’s greatest desire seems to be just that—then I need to learn to listen in a whole new way.
I’m now picturing some of you scrambling to think of all the ways everyone else in your life sucks at listening. My suggestion to each of us is that every time we read something here that makes us think of someone else, we bring our attention back to ourselves. Because this weekend I realized that although I’m way better at it than I was ten years or five years or even a year ago, I still fall short when I’m triggered. And that’s really the only time it matters!
It’s quite easy to be a good listener when there’s nothing on the line, nothing to defend. The rubber hits the road when I’m being pushed or squeezed or even nudged outside of my comfort zone. As soon as I feel even a twinge of discomfort my ears shut down and my mind takes over with a roaring voice that’s at times deafening.
When I’m triggered you become the enemy and my mind finds all the ways you’re wrong, especially when it’s very clear to me that you do exactly what you just accused me of. I can’t begin to count the times when someone has challenged me with something and my only response is ‘well you do the same thing’ (picture tongue sticking out accompanied by a silent nah, nah, nah, nah). And vice versa, when I’ve tried to express a concern or a desire for a different behavior, I’ve gotten the identical response. When that happens I want to scream and pummel them into the ground!
Staying present with pain and discomfort when we’re triggered is HARD. So we fight to avoid feeling what we’re feeling. I’ll acknowledge that there may be someone reading this who has figured it out and doesn’t stick out their metaphorical tongue anymore. If so, please write a book and I’ll be the first in line to buy it! Or ask your family—they might poke a hole or two into the idea that you’ve arrived. We all seem to fall into the same potholes, I don’t care how smart or emotionally mature we are.
So what’s the antidote?
Well here’s what I tried this weekend. I was with someone who’s very important to me and I did something thoughtless. Ultimately it devolved into a messy pool of ‘you did…’, but ‘I wouldn’t have if…’, all the way to ‘I’m outa here’!
We ended up working through it. Here’s what I think kept me from running away screaming. I remembered what I preach. Instead of doing what came naturally, which would have been to tighten up, shut down or retaliate, I physically leaned in across the table and told myself to soften and open up. I told myself to listen to what was behind this person’s words. And it turned out there was a whole other world behind the words. Lots going on that I’d never have heard about if I’d shut down or stayed on automatic pilot. The frosting on the cake was that the moment I stopped defending myself, I was able to care again.
I don’t believe this is ‘the’ answer. If it was it would already be in ‘the’ book on listening and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
I do think it’s a way for me to connect more meaningfully with the people I care about. I’d love to hear your comments on what you’ve figured out about effective listening. Or what you’ve discovered doesn’t work. Often that can be the best starting place for change.