a listeners guide

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G. K. Chesterton/listening

I am happy (and relieved) to report that nothing terrible was said or done during the visit of the mother-in-law. This may seem like a rather low bar, but I see it as seven days of small wins, letting go, breathing. Daily reminders of all the ways my character can grow are humbling.

Humbling and challenging. Looking back, I realize I created some of the challenge myself by the way I chose to listen.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey

Covey suggests at least two ways to listen. With a few years of counseling and the wisdom of writer Marshall Rosenberg, I think there are many ways to listen.

Listening as a witness

“Mom, I got a new tattoo.” When she tells me this, I know it is not to start a debate or to evoke any feelings on my part. My girl is keeping me in the loop of her life. She is sharing information. She is a little excited and wants me to know about it. Do I like permanent body marking? Does she need me to understand her delight? Both questions are beside the point. I have been given the gift of personal information. I acknowledge my over-18 darling with a smile and she knows she is safe to be heard.

 Listening to understand

“This term I’m on a new campus and spend six hours a day sitting in an ugly classroom. I don’t have any friends yet. I feel discouraged.” Listening to this I make a point of taking a long, slow breath. I sense that more than anything, I am being invited into an experience. The information reveals feelings and as a listener, I am being asked for understanding and compassion. “Wow, honey, this sounds tough. No wonder you feel discouraged.” With this response the conversation could either move on to other things or continue with a few questions and perhaps proceed to problem-solving. However, this is probably a conversation for commiseration rather than fix-it strategies. “This could be a long semester, sweetie,” or “Sorry things are off to such a rough start.”

Listening to reply

Reply covers many possibilities: forming your answer to a question, finding a tie-in to launch your own story (who can resist one-up-manship?), thinking of a clever or funny remark, venting a bit of sarcasm, or drawing a wise lesson from your experience to improve the speaker. No doubt I’m missing a few. Here are two forms of listening to reply that made up my repertoire for many years.

Listening to Problem-solve

As a creative person, I LOVE problem-solving. As a parent and spouse I’ve confused a good deal of my career with that of a think-tank expert offering thoughtful fix-it feedback for all my darlings. They tell me about adventures and misadventures at school or work; I happily offer three strategies for making things easier, smarter, faster next time. Problem-solving is a wonderful skill. But it may not be what the listener wants or needs.

Listening to Challenge

Noting inconsistency, pointing out contradictions, correcting the speaker’s misinformation, and questioning word choice were standard fare in discussions in my family of origin. Intelligence was highly valued and so clarity, proof, and rational argument mattered. As listeners, my parents seemed to feel they served best if they helped me avoid sloppy thinking and decisions based on intuition and feeling. As a teacher, I practiced listening-to-challenge with my students — one situation where this makes sense. However, as a partner, I often practiced this with my true love. As my children grew, I practiced this form of listening with them.

It wasn’t until someone very dear became almost silent that I realized my listening menu options needed to change. I longed for a relationship of trust and openness, but my go-to approaches, problem-solving or listening-to-challenging,  did not foster trust and openness. I had limited listening experiences. Thankfully, when the silence set in, I’d been working with a gifted listener for a couple of years. I realized that she listened in different ways. I was also reading Marshall Rosenberg’s book Non-Violent Communication A Language for Life. According to Rosenberg, what I experienced as I worked with my counselor was empathic and reflective listening. What a relief to know of other possibilities!

I apologized to my almost-silent dear one for my history of listening-to-problem-solve and listening-to-challenge. Owning my beginner status, I worked on listening to understand. Now when a conversation begins, I may ask, “Would you like me to listen to witness, understand or problem-solve?” And I’ve added the option, “I’m happy to problem-solve if you like, but ya don’t have to take my advice.” This really changes things. I’ve pretty much let go of listening-to-challenge. Until last week…

Back to the character-building experience that was the visit of my mother-in-law. Some of my challenge involved choosing listening-to-problem-solve when I had not been invited to fix anything. But the heaviest, stress-iest matters involved choosing the listening-to-challenge mode. Should I ever teach critical thinking, debate, or mock-trial I’ll use listening-to-challenge. If I’m spoiling for an argument or trying to make someone feel defensive, ditto. However, when building relationships and fostering trust, I probably won’t need this form of listening. Ever.

So, next time I listen to my mother-in-law — and because there is plenty of work to do on my character there will be a next time — here’s my Note to Self: UNLESS specifically asked, “What do you think, Rebecca?”

listen to witness and to understand.

This will be difficult to remember and practice, but I’m gonna try.

Today, notice yourself in the role of listener. Given the situation, what listening approach would best foster trust and openness? Try it.

Or –

Do you need someone to listen to you today? What kind of listening do you need? Practice good self-care and ask for it.

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Thank you for listening. With gratitude, Rebecca

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