We don’t listen well in general and maybe that’s because we were all trained from an early age to listen with the intent to respond, rather than listen with the intent to understand. I am guilty of this relationship infraction on most days. In part it is because on many days, I still have a deep need to be heard. Like many people, I often learn what I think as I say it to someone who cares about me, which is not surprising because it is in this safe holding of our thoughts and feelings that we often feel most loved. This is not a shameful thing, although I have often felt ashamed that I am not better at reciprocating in this way. Knowing something is true and being good at it are not one in the same.
This is particularly painful to reflect on now as a very old and dear friend has just “taken space” from our relationship in large part because my need to be heard outbalanced my capacity for listening to her. Some thin line cracked in our connection, and although I know that relationship failures are never the result of only one person’s behavior, I also am aware that the push-pull of relating, the ways in which we show up to listen and to be heard forge fragile bonds. Listening is the glue for that bond and it feels different for everyone. The intimacy that people share might not feel intimate for both people. I tend to seek out and want to be part of the deep self -revelatory emotional observations and am less interested with the small details of material reality. My daughter witnesses this lack of interest in her fashion decisions with the same pain and feeling of invisibility that I would attach to not hearing my expressions of emotional upheaval.
Listening is the most powerful form of patience we can show to someone we love. I know how easily I can take a small bit of what my friend might say and jump to a conclusion. Maybe I do know something, but my knowing is not worth nearly as much as my patience to listen and let her know it for herself. This has taken a long time to understand that telling someone something that you know, never really works. On the rare occasion that someone asks you why or how and is genuinely interested in your answer, you can tell them. But the most powerful learning always comes from within, when someone holds a space open for us to find the learning in ourselves.
Years ago I learned about the concept of generative listening, which is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed and hear beneath the words to their meaning. I know from trying to communicate my own feelings that often the words I use don’t describe what is happening nearly as accurately as my relationship to what is happening. Gaining the objectivity to really know the situation is part of what happens when someone takes the time to listen.
This is where a lot of misunderstanding comes from; in our rush to reply we often hear the words, but not the heart of what is being said. Slowing down and paying full attention to the people we love gives us the chance to heal and connect in a way that words cannot. It takes practice and dedication, but bringing the power of a loving silence into your relationships regularly, which gives the people you care about the chance to figure out what is inside of them, also adds elasticity and patience to life together.
Listening better is for me a lifelong pursuit, it is one of the most clearly understood ways that you can live into the words that are so easy to say- I love you. Getting better means that I have enough of myself to not need to be in the front of the conversation, it means that I care enough to not tell someone what I know, but listen for what they are learning. It is one of the most advanced practices of love.