Everyone knows the received wisdom about how to listen well. The active/reflective listening dogma has its roots in the human potential movement of the 1960’s. Half a century later, its wise and gentle fingers still have a stranglehold on those of us who read women’s magazines, articles about psychology, who have ever had even one hour of psychotherapy.
Active listening, however, is anything but active. It goes something like this:
Your friend: “Yeah, so, I don’t know. I just can’t get him to talk about anything meaningful.”
YF: “It’s been like this forever. Except maybe for a while there when we first met.”
Y: Nodding knowingly: “Yeah.”
YF: “I don’t know why I can’t just accept him the way he is. I know you can’t change anyone but yourself.”
Y: (Thinking, “Is this another sacred cow?”) “I know. It’s hard.”
YF: “It is hard. Sometimes I feel alone when I’m with him…”
You get the idea.
Not that this type of listening doesn’t have benefits. The speaker feels heard – not something to be taken for granted in our over-extended, self-involved, distractible culture. The listener doesn’t barge in with her opinion or with suggestions but focuses on what the speaker is saying and tries to understand and perhaps reflect. Everyone’s got the answers inside them anyway. Don’t they?
The other day a conversation with a good friend cracked open this how-to-listen dogma for me.
It’s a Shabbat morning and while we are ostensibly on our way to shul, Emily and I are taking our time getting off the couch. She’s lying back on the Palestinian embroidered cushion with her shoes off, I’m at the opposite corner of the L, legs tucked under me, hugging a pillow.
Emily is worried about her kids. Kids who in my eyes are doing great. She’s preoccupied with the fact that they’re not taking her path in life at the pace she took it: married at 25, career by 26, kids by 32, major and minor accomplishments strewn in her path. Being perhaps more of a 60’s child than Emily, I get where her boys are coming from.
I try this way and that way to tell Emily what I think but I keep hitting up against the stone wall of what she thinks.
Finally I say:
“I’m not doing this very well. I should just listen.”
Emily waves my doubts away.
“No! This is good. The other way wastes too much time.”
Both in our 60’s, we are preoccupied with wasting time. We no longer do things we don’t want to do. We obsess about getting the most out of the time remaining.
I hit on an image that makes what I’ve been trying to say come alive for Emily. By this time, we have our shoes and hats on and are walking in the hot Jerusalem sun, up the hill, toward shul. I stop and turn toward her, hold up my palms and push one against the other.
“As long as you push, they’ll push back,” I say. I pull one palm back. “If you let go, you give them room to become whoever they will be without it having to be in reaction to – or rebellion against — you.”
Emily gets it. She already knows it’s true. (Of course it’s so much easier to explain this to a friend than to implement it with one’s own kids.)
The essence here is letting go.
I’ve had two huge letting go experiences recently of “angsts” I’d managed to hold on to for decades. You know the type. I didn’t intend it or try to make it happen but in both cases, the feelings just disappeared. I am able to be with the friends who I felt had betrayed me with no discomfort or semi-conscious anger — no baggage — getting in the way.
I’m still trying to figure this one out. Maslow doesn’t talk about a letting go stage, does he? But the letting go as if by grace feels related to this stage of life: The big questions of what to do, where to do it and whom to be with have been answered. The kids are (more or less) grown. I still haven’t figured out what to do about world hunger or irradiated food. But just as babies know how to develop on their own, some internal mechanism beyond awareness seems to know what to do. Understanding will come. Meanwhile, I can celebrate the letting go — and the ability to convince a receptive friend that she should, too.