I’ve worked for years in communications. People think that what I do is “writing”, and it is, but none of that would work if I didn’t do a few things first.
Active listening is the work of a lifetime, really. It’s not hard, but it isn’t one single thing. It’s composed of discrete elements.
Stillness is important. You’re really not waiting for your turn to talk. You actually are with the other person, seeing and feeling his or her level of comfort with you and whatever is between you. It helps if you have something else to focus on: a craft, a road you’re traveling together, an animal, a child.
It’s also important to acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of the other person. Who is this person? Who is he or she to you? Critically, what does he or she feel?
Acknowledging and agreeing are not the same things. You are still free to hold your own opinion. You are still free to offer your own point of view. But letting the other person have his or her say: that’s basic manners. It’s just about being kind.
Asking questions is so important to listening. In the year I met my husband, we both worked in technical support. Here’s an exercise very much like one we did together in a train-the-trainer course we took as we built a customer service course. It teaches, literally, how to ask which questions when, if you cannot see the person you’re asking.
Was the world less polarized then, in the late 1990’s? I think it was. I think we may have reached a point now where I, you, even entire neighborhoods, are much more distant from one another than we once were.
How many people do you know who have a different perspective on the world from yours? Liberal? Conservative? How many steps are you willing to take to see their point of view?
I think these are good questions. I think that we stand to lose what we have, who we are, if we don’t begin taking those steps. And I think it’s listening that can take us there.
It’s time to talk about fear. If you are politically liberal, I think you know what I mean. But “fear” is not just a word: it’s a very real force, one many people feel now. They are no longer just angry. They are devastated, paralyzed, and so very sad.
Remember that feeling? It wasn’t so long ago, was it?
Fear is so difficult to talk about, around, past. It fills the speaker’s eyes with tears. It shrinks the world; it makes the present interminable.
A story: My sister had major surgery last year. It was a long day for her and her husband, and she was supposed to spend the night in the hospital. For whatever reason (insurance wouldn’t pay for a bed in ICU? I think that was it), she had to come home that night, very late.
Her two-year-old daughter was waiting when they got home. She looked at Mommy and ran. When she came back, seconds later, she had Band-Aids. Help Mommy feel better.
She did what she could.
By the time I arrived a couple of days later to help out around the house, my sister was a bit better, but still couldn’t pick her little girl up. One night at bath time, my niece burst into tears at the part of the ritual that had been one of her favorites. As the water drained out of the tub, she cried, terrified it would take her toys, her bathtime magnetic letters — maybe even her — down the drain with it.
Fear does not make sense. It doesn’t have to. It’s deep and primal, bigger than reason. As a listener you just have to give it room.
Be aware of fear. Be sensitive. Be kind. Just listen, just be.
Today would be a great time to start.
Image from “A portrait of 100,000 people logged on to a global chatroom“, The Independent
Thanks to my friend Jeff, for the inspiration.