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The Lost Art of Listening
How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships
By Michael P. Nichols
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2009 Michael P. Nichols
All rights reserved.
"Did You Hear What I Said?"
Why Listening Is So Important
Sometimes it seems that nobody listens anymore.
"He expects me to listen to his problems, but he never asks about mine."
"She's always complaining."
"The only time I find out what's going on in his life is when I overhear him telling someone else. Why doesn't he tell me these things?"
"I can't talk to her because she's so critical."
Wives complain that their husbands take them for granted. Husbands complain that their wives nag or take forever to get to the point.
She feels a violation of their connection. He doesn't trust the connection.
Few motives in human experience are as powerful as the yearning to be understood. Being listened to means that we are taken seriously, that our ideas and feelings are recognized, and, ultimately, that what we have to say matters.
The yearning to be heard is a yearning to escape our isolation and bridge the space that separates us. We reach out and try to overcome that separateness by revealing what's on our minds and in our hearts, hoping for understanding. Getting that understanding should be simple, but it isn't.
Joan had seen a suit she'd like to buy for work, but wasn't sure she should spend the money. "Honey," she said, "I saw a really nice suit at the outlet store."
"That's nice," Henry said, and went back to watching the news.
Justin was upset about having had a fender bender, but he was afraid that if he said anything Denise would get on his case about it. So he kept quiet and worried about how he was going to get it fixed. Denise felt Justin's distance and assumed that he was angry at her for something. She didn't feel like having an argument, so she didn't say anything either.
The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into the experience of the other person. Part intuition and part effort, it's the stuff of human connection.
A listener's empathy—grasping what we're trying to say and showing it—builds a bond of understanding, linking us to someone who hears us and cares, and thus confirms that our feelings are legitimate and recognizable. The power of empathic listening is the power to transform relationships. When deeply felt but unexpressed feelings take shape in words that are voiced and come back clarified, the result is a reassuring sense of being understood and a grateful feeling of shared humanness with the one who understands.
If listening strengthens our relationships by cementing our connection with one another, it also fortifies our sense of self. In the presence of a receptive listener, we are able to clarify what we think and discover what we feel. Thus, in giving an account of our experience to someone who listens, we are better able to listen to ourselves. Our lives are defined in dialogue.
It Hurts Not to Be Listened To
The need to be taken seriously and responded to is frustrated every day. Parents complain that their children don't listen. Children complain that their parents are too busy scolding to hear their side of things. Even friends, usually a reliable source of shared understanding, are often too busy to listen to one another these days. And if we sometimes feel cut off from sympathy and understanding in the private sphere, we've grown not even to expect courtesy and attention in public settings.
Our right to be heard is violated in countless ways that we don't always remember, by others who don't always realize. That doesn't make it hurt any less.
When I told a psychiatrist friend that I was collecting experiences on the theme "It hurts not to be listened to," he sent me this example:
"I called a friend and left a message asking if we could meet at a particular time. He didn't answer, and I felt a little anxious and confused. Should I call again to remind him? After all, I know he's busy. Should I wait another day or two and hope he'll answer? Should I not have asked him in the first place? All this leaves me uneasy."
The first thing that struck me about this example was how even a little thing like an unanswered phone message can leave someone feeling unresponded to—and troubled. Then I was really struck—like a slap in the face—by the realization that my friend was talking about me! Suddenly I was embarrassed, and then defensive. The reason I hadn't returned his call—doesn't matter. (We always have reasons for not responding.) What matters is how my failure to respond hurt and confused my friend and that I never had any inkling of it.
If an oversight like that can hurt, how much more painful is it when the subject is of urgent importance to the speaker?
When you come home from a business trip, eager to tell your partner how it went, and he listens but after a minute or two something in his eyes goes to sleep, you feel hurt and betrayed. When you call your parents to share a triumph and they don't seem really interested, you feel deflated and perhaps slightly foolish for having allowed yourself to even hope for appreciation.
Just as it hurts not to be listened to when you're excited about something special, it's painful not to feel listened to by someone special, someone you expect to care about you.
Roger's best friend in college was Derek. They were both political science majors and shared a passion for politics. Together they followed every detail of the Watergate investigation, relishing each new revelation as though they were a series of deliciously wicked Charles Addams cartoons. But as much as they took cynical delight in the exposure of corruption in the Nixon White House, their friendship went beyond politics.
Roger remembered the wonderful feeling of talking to Derek for hours, impelled by the momentum of some deep and inexplicable sympathy. There was the pleasure of being able to say anything he wanted and the pleasure of hearing Derek say everything he'd always thought but never expressed. Unlike most of Roger's other friends, Derek wasn't a competitive conversationalist. He really listened.
When they went to graduate schools in different cities, they kept up their friendship. Roger would visit Derek, or Derek would visit Roger, at least once a month. They'd play pool or see a movie and go out for Chinese food; and then afterward, no matter how late it got, they'd stay up talking.
Then Derek got married, and things changed. Derek didn't become distant the way some friends do after one marries, nor did Derek's wife dislike Roger. The distance that Roger felt was a small thing, but it made a big difference.
"It's difficult to describe exactly, but I often end up feeling awkward and disappointed when I speak with Derek. He listens, but somehow he doesn't seem really interested anymore. He doesn't ask questions. He used to be involved rather than just accepting. It makes me sad. I still feel excited about the things going on in my life, but telling Derek just makes me feel unconnected and alone with them."
Roger's lament says something important about listening. It isn't just not being interrupted that we want. Sometimes people appear to be listening but aren't really hearing. Some people are good at being silent when we talk. Sometimes they betray their lack of interest by glancing around and shifting their weight back and forth. At other times, however, listeners show no sign of inattention, but still we know they aren't really hearing what we have to say. It feels like they don't care.
Derek's passive interest was especially painful to Roger because of the closeness they'd shared. The friends had reached an impasse; Roger couldn't open himself to his friend the way he'd done in the past, and Derek was mystified by the distance that had grown between them.
Friendship is voluntary, and so talking about it is optional. Roger didn't want to complain to Derek or make demands. Besides, how does one friend tell another that he feels no longer cared about? And so Roger never did talk to Derek about feeling estranged. Too bad, because when a relationship goes sour, talking about it may be the only way to make things right again.
After a while most of us learn to do a pretty good imitation of being grownups and shrug off a lot of slights and misunderstandings. If, in the process, we become a little calloused, well maybe that's the price we pay for getting along in the world. But sometimes not being responded to leaves us feeling so hurt and angry that it can make us retreat from relationships, even for years.
When a woman discovered that her husband was having an affair, she felt as if someone had kicked her in the gut. In her grief and anger, she turned to the person she was closest to—her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law tried to be understanding and supportive, but it was, after all, difficult to listen to the bitter things her daughter-in-law was saying about her son. Still, she tried. Apparently, however, the support she offered wasn't enough. Eventually the crisis passed and the couple reconciled, but the daughter-in-law, feeling that her mother-in-law hadn't been there when she needed her most, never spoke to her again.
The mother-in-law in this sad story was baffled by her daughter-in-law's stubborn silence. Other people's reactions often seem unreasonable to us. What makes their reactions reasonable to them is feeling wounded by a lack of responsiveness.
To listen is to pay attention, take an interest, care about, take to heart, validate, acknowledge, be moved ... appreciate. Listening is so central to human existence as to often escape notice; or, rather, it appears in so many guises that it's seldom recognized as the overarching need that it is. Sometimes, as Roger, the estranged daughter-in-law, and so many others have discovered, we don't realize how important being listened to is until we feel cheated out of it.
Once in a while, however, we become aware of how much it means to be listened to. You can't decide whether or not to take a new job, and so you call an old friend to talk it over. She doesn't tell you what to do, but the fact that she listens, really listens, helps you see things more clearly. Another time you're just getting to know someone but you like him so much that, after a wonderful dinner in a restaurant, you take a risk and ask him over for coffee. When he says, "No thanks, I've got to get up early," you feel rejected. Convinced that he doesn't like you, you start avoiding him. After a few days, however, he asks you what's wrong, and once again you take a risk and tell him that your feelings were hurt. To your great relief, instead of arguing, he listens and accepts what you have to say. "I can see how you might have felt that way, but actually I would like to see you again."
Why can't it always be that way? I speak, you listen. It's that simple, isn't it? Unfortunately, it isn't. Talking and listening creates a unique relationship in which speaker and listener are constantly switching roles, both jockeying for position, each one's needs competing with the other's. If you doubt it, try telling someone about a problem you're having and see how long it takes before he interrupts to describe a similar experience of his own or to offer advice—advice that may suit him more than it does you.
A man in therapy was exploring his relationship with his distant father when he suddenly remembered the happy times they'd spent together playing with his electric trains. It was a Lionel set that had been his father's and grandfather's before him. Caught up in the memory, the man grew increasingly excited as he recalled the pride he'd felt in sharing this family tradition with his father. As the man's enthusiasm mounted, the therapist launched into a long narrative about his train set and how he had gotten the other kids in the neighborhood to bring over their tracks and train cars to build a huge neighborhood setup in his basement. After the therapist had gone on at some length, the patient could no longer contain his anger about being cut off. "Why are you telling me about your trains?!" he demanded. The therapist hesitated; then, with that level, impersonal voice we reserve for confiding something intimate, he said lamely, "I was just trying to be friendly."
The therapist had made an all-too-common mistake (actually he'd made several, but this is Be Kind to Therapists Week). He assumed that sharing his own experience was the equivalent of empathy. In fact, though, he switched the focus to himself, making his patient feel discounted, misunderstood, unappreciated. That's what hurt.
As is often the way with words that become familiar, empathy may not adequately convey the power of appreciating the inner experience of another person. Empathic listening is like the close reading of a poem; it takes in the words and gets to what's behind them. The difference is that while empathy is actively imaginative, it is fundamentally receptive rather than creative. When we attend to a work of art, our idiosyncratic response has its own validity, but when we attend to someone who's trying to tell us something, it's understanding, not creativity, that counts.
Listening has not one but two purposes: taking in information and bearing witness to another's experience. By momentarily stepping out of his or her own frame of reference and into ours, the person who really listens acknowledges and affirms us. That validation is essential for sustaining the confirmation known as self-respect. Without being listened to, we are shut up in the solitude of our own hearts.
A thirty-six-year-old woman was so unnerved by a minor incident that she wondered if she needed psychotherapy. Marnie, who was executive vice-president of a public policy institute, had arranged a meeting with the lieutenant governor to present a proposal she'd developed involving the regulation of a large state industry. Of necessity she'd invited her boss to the meeting, although she would have been able to make a more effective presentation without him. The boss, in turn, had invited the institute's chief lobbyist, who would later have to convince legislators of the need for the proposed regulation. The meeting began, as Marnie expected, with her boss rambling on in a loose philosophical discussion that circled but never quite got to the point. When he finished, he turned not to Marnie but to the lobbyist to present the proposal. Marnie was stunned. The lobbyist began to speak, and fifteen minutes later the meeting ended without Marnie's ever having gotten to say a word—about her proposal.
Marnie couldn't wait to tell her husband what had happened. Unfortunately he was in Europe and wouldn't be back for three days. She was used to her husband's business trips; what she wasn't used to was how cut off she felt. She really needed to talk to him. As the evening wore on, Marnie's disappointment grew and then changed character. Instead of simply feeling frustrated, she began to feel inadequate. Why was she so dependent on her husband? Why couldn't she handle her own emotions?
Marnie decided that her problem was insecurity. If she were more secure, she wouldn't need anyone so much. She wouldn't be so vulnerable; she'd be self-sufficient.
Marnie's complaint—the unexpected urgency to be heard—and her conclusion, that if she'd developed more self-esteem growing up, she wouldn't need to depend so much on other people's responsiveness, is a common one. Needing someone to respond to us tempts us to believe that if we were stronger we wouldn't need other people so much. That way they wouldn't be able to disappoint us so much.
Being listened to does help us grow up feeling secure; but, contrary to what some people would like to believe, we never become whole and complete, finished products, like a statue or a monument. On the contrary, like any living thing, human beings require nourishment not only to grow up strong but also to maintain their strength and vitality. Listening nourishes our sense of worth.
Excerpted from The Lost Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols. Copyright © 2009 Michael P. Nichols. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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