LEARNING TO LISTEN: DISCOVERIES AND PRACTICES
Updated: Mar 2
This article was published in the 2019 Conference for Global Transformation-Landmark Education Abstract In our relationships, are we really listening? If we are, are we listening for fulfillment? If we are not, do we have the courage to upgrade our listening and ourselves? My long-term effort to answer these questions resulted in a new level of personal and professional awareness. I also became clear that levels of improvement never end.
WHERE I STARTED
The first time I stepped into a therapist’s office, I was the client. It was the fall of 1996 and next to me was my now ex-husband. Seven years into our marriage, he had been unfaithful and I was there to save my marriage.1 I was committed to that end; well, more like fixated on that goal. Did you know that a state of fixation comes with symptoms of blindness, deafness and insistence, even desperation, of seeing a mission through? I didn’t know that at the time. There was much I did not know but would soon learn through personal discomfort and professional pursuit.
I do not remember what anyone said during our eight-month engagement with that therapist. All I know is that nothing anyone said mattered if it did not assist my goal—I was not listening. Even worse, I did not want to.
These many years later, I am the couple’s therapist. The transition from business school to clinical social work was inevitable. The shift created by the change in my marriage propelled me into a soul search that in my opinion required academic commitment. So, I studied as a matter of survival. This benefited my marriage, which made it to its 25th anniversary. The shift also benefited hundreds of people who have sought my counsel, some with similar issues and most with identical goals, “Help me ‘save’* my marriage.” For years, I sought to assist them, [a worthy goal] but an impossible one without a commitment to individuals first.
The following exploration is not a faultfinding mission. It is a statement of personal discoveries made along the way. These are not new principles but observations discussed through time by philosophers and modern clinical researchers alike. From Aristotle (384-322 BC) to Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston in Texas, many have proposed the points I bring up. The biggest distinction is that theory, principles, insight or research are all useless until we own their impact and make alterations to our life. It is in these alterations that we find purpose, direction and the ability to feel joy no matter what circumstances befall us.
FIRST DISCOVERY—PEOPLE FIRST
Marriages, partnerships and intimate relationships of any kind are important to our emotional wellbeing but they are things, situations and titles
of little worth if the people in them are not well. Simple fact? Not really. We tend to define ourselves by our roles—wife, husband, therapist, etc. We invest money and time into becoming one thing or another and when the thing that defines us is challenged, we lose our footing in the world. In fact, the world, as we know it, shifts, and our first reaction is to restore what shifted. In the effort to restore, we tend to forget others and ourselves. In doing so, even if “the thing” is restored, our ability to maintain it is limited at best. So, I no longer focus on restoring relationships. My personal goal and professional outlook is to build people—myself included. This realization has helped me to articulate my Impossible Promise, or, rather, my life’s commitment: to contribute to the possibility of a world where people go in and out of intimate relationships whole, capable and complete.
SECOND DISCOVERY— LISTEN TO PERSONAL TRUTH
Listening to self is not the same as paying attention to our internal monologue (that nag that sounds like our voice but derails more often than builds), which is not recommended. Listening to self requires that we discern our monologue as such and practice courage to see, hear and speak what is left. I call this our truth. In the presence of said truth, courage then assists us to share it. Sharing our truth is full expression at its best and how we are impacted in the world.
How to know we are in the presence of our truth can be tricky, but there are measures that help us know if we are in or near its vicinity. For example, when in the space of truth, our truth, there is no need to claim it or cling to it. There is a calm assurance that directs emotion and behavior. Usually included is the acceptance that if we have a truth, then others must have theirs, too. With this realization, we open ourselves to unlimited curiosity for others and a desire that they, too, find and express their personal truth. Finally, our truth does not include impulses of destruction or disregard. It includes an exquisite mixture of self-respect and concern for others that allows for a self-assured stance without demands.
When we are fully expressed, others perceive us as present and able to hold a space for them to be self-expressed. The dance that ensues includes soft melodies and heavy metal noise. But, when individuals listen together in this way, they transform and so does their world.
THIRD DISCOVERY— PERSONAL TRUTHS CHANGE
Even though human beings are organisms working to “arrive at” locations, situations and stages, we tend to perceive ourselves as fixed. “This is how I am” or “this is how you are” are common refrains. This misconception forces us to forget that we are all in a constant process of changing and becoming.
This point is relevant in that the truth that is yours or mine today may morph into something different tomorrow. I hear people say: “We grew apart.” A more powerful way to say this is that “we stopped sharing and listening from a space of personal truth. I settled into my understanding of you and you stopped seeing me as anything but what you knew.” Everyone missed out on a world of possibilities by not seeking, listening and being fully expressed.
What a wonderful thing it is to know that we can be a source of constant discovery for each other. What a gift to know that by opening to being surprised by our life partners, we can keep relationships vibrant, interesting and exciting.
FOURTH DISCOVERY—HOW TO LISTEN
The listening referred to here goes beyond hearing or understanding expressed in words. It goes to the curiosity placed and the interest paid to another’s full expression or whatever degree of expression they are able to share with us. To listen to another, we must learn to suspend our thinking, practice pausing and be willing to experience self-denial.
The idea of suspending our thoughts in order to listen requires that we believe what is being said is new and interesting. This involves giving up the impulse to connect the information being shared to that which we already know. When we can suspend our attachment to what we know, magic happens. Evidence of that magic is, among other things, curiosity, inquiry and wonder.
Curiosity expands our interest to the space outside ourselves. It makes possible what is otherwise imperceptible, unthinkable and even improbable. Curiosity then gives way to inquiry from open spaces. Those open spaces allow for asking questions we do not have an answer to and to receiving answers anew. Wonder—a deep awe at the recognition that all is constantly new—causes us to pay attention as a constant practice. When curiosity, inquiry and wonder are palpable, self-expression is a natural byproduct instead of a forced or artificial stance.
Pausing is distinguished as the ability to make time to integrate or internalize what is being shared before offering a response. When we pause with this purpose, we enter the presence of respect and mutual concern, which are fertile ground for connection and growth.
Self-denial is the ability to make every effort to understand the other person, even when they are saying things we have already heard or do not want to hear. Have you noticed when we give and receive difficult information, we get to upgrade our relationships and ourselves?
FIFTH DISCOVERY—UPGRADING IS NOT THE SAME AS IMPROVING
All too often, our change-averse brain insists on maintaining the status quo. But, sometimes, upgrading a relationship means dissolving it. I missed that possibility all those many years ago. My focus was on preserving titles, agreements, religious commitments, labels and reputations. In that pursuit, I missed understanding that the unintended consequence was the immediate and eventual destruction of people—a more valuable and irreplaceable commodity.
My understanding of upgrading has transformed. It is no longer predetermined by external forces, beliefs, dogma or norms. It is now an opportunity to be determined moment to moment with myself and others as equally important beneficiaries of the upgrade.
SIXTH DISCOVERY—LISTENING TO LEARN, NOT TO WIN
It is odd, even uncomfortable to recognize how intent we are on feeling as though we are winning, on top or in control. It is a subtle thing really and hard for us to admit when we do it. But, listening to win is the first culprit when it comes to an inability to communicate from our personal truth and in a fully expressed fashion. Giving up our need to win requires a commitment to personal growth (ours and theirs). In my experience, most people are not willing to put their need to win on the line. It seems to indicate a sense of disappearing or of not mattering. A strange conclusion when the reality is we are most able to make an impact when we are open to learning and sharing from a space of mutual gain.
Listening to learn requires all the tools mentioned above with the addition of an obstinate disposition that there is more than what we already know. Obstinate? Indeed, since our first impulse is to buy into the idea that what we know is all there is to know. This impulse will be ever-present, so we have to be stubborn and insist, even to ourselves that there may be something else to learn or find out. This small switch in perception allows us to listen without agenda and reply in unpredictable ways. This makes every conversation new and every argument an opportunity to learn.
Another listening tool is listening to contribute and be contributed to; this stance can be difficult to sustain. Part of the difficulty of listening to contribute and being contributed to stems from the weight we give to our words in conversations and our tendency to diminish the words said by others. Adding to the difficulty is that we forget that words mean different things to different people. Matters get further complicated when we say words and expect them to be heard and remembered as we meant them. An illustration I often use in large groups is to say the word “orange” and ask a few people to say out loud what they thought of, or focused on, at the uttering of the word. Everything from a fruit to a sunset to pointing at someone wearing orange is brought to light. There is richness to our communication when we take time to say what we mean and ask what is meant.
In my process of discovery, I have learned that to be of contribution requires a commitment to leave people better than we found them. To receive contribution requires that we admit they are capable of upgrading us in some way. To listen to contribute and be contributed to, humility and vulnerability are necessary practices. As with any good clinician, I’ve come up with my own definition for those words:
• Humility in relationships—the willingness to let go of the need to win with the hope that I might, through an interaction, learn something new or become something better.
• Vulnerability in relationships—the capacity to show up and come from spaces I am not comfortable in and be in an interaction as a flawed human, scared yet willing to be seen.
What results from these ways of being is an ability to teach and learn openly. To encourage such a stand, all of us need to remember that to learn from another we must give up knowing.
To recap, my commitment is to contribute to the possibility of a world where people move in and out of intimate relationships whole, capable and complete. Whole as in accepting all that we are and all that has made us the way we are. Capable as in confident that we can withstand the challenges that will inevitably come our way, and, furthermore, trusting those challenges will serve to assist our growth. Complete as in satisfied with the unfinished nature of life and willing to live it fully just as it is for us.
My discoveries and commitment would be of little use if we were unable to measure where we are in the scales of whole, capable and complete. Arguably, each one of us would need to bring our own measuring sticks. But, while we develop our own way to measure progress (because that is all we can aspire to), may I suggest the following for your consideration: If an individual works to know their personal truth while strengthening their courage quotient, that individual will share that truth openly and curiously.
In doing so, that person reaches the first mark on the proposed measuring stick (an open and curious stance). Armed with said open and curious disposition will make it possible to perceive or attempt to perceive what the experience looks like for others. Finding in that effort a sense of integrity, the second mark on said measuring stick. I define integrity as a continuous effort to abide by the same rules we impose on others and be guided by equanimity.
To reach the next mark on the stick, the same individual would learn to listen to another, finding themselves in community, people who support and feel supported by us. Add to the same person an interest to contribute and to be contributed to and now they have reached the marks of purpose and satisfaction also experienced as direction and grounding.
Lastly, if this same person finds a way to be a space where others find themselves, that person has reached relevance and a piece of eternal; relevance as in being of consequence in their community and eternal as in being part of something bigger than themselves. In my opinion, that’s the highest measure or evidence of being whole, capable and complete.
“Saving” is not a word I would use or a capacity I would claim to have. The word expresses the way I felt in the therapist’s office and how most people verbalize their intention in coming for couple’s treatment. By nature, writing precludes interaction. This report is a personal journey and not intended as final or finalized. As time passes, I expect to continue to grow and change my mind about this and many other things.
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