As a teacher, I’m acutely aware of a huge void in our education system. From preschool all the way through post secondary education, we teach our students the skills needed to read, write, and speak, but nowhere along the way do we teach people how to listen. We assume that the ability to listen will be mysteriously honed as a byproduct of sitting in a classroom. I think we’re starting to brush up against the fallacy of that educational approach today, with the appearance of more and more avenues to express ourselves be it through social media, blogs, or chat forums. We are left with a cacophony of noise reverberating around us, but is anyone really listening? This problem becomes even more acute in that much of this noise is our expression of pain, trauma, and loneliness. In an era of 24/7 connectivity, it’s as if we’ve never been less connected to one another than we are today.
All my life I thought being a good listener meant making eye contact with someone, anticipating what someone was going to say, and being able finish someone’s thoughts or add my own quick repartee. It’s only recently, since I started reading more about trauma and working through childhood sexual abuse, that I have begun to understand how difficult it is to really listen to someone. By trying to anticipate what you are going to say, I block any possibility of truly hearing what is coming from your heart and soul.
I lived with the shame of childhood sexual abuse for 35 years, and I permitted what happened to me as a child to define me as an adult. When I decided to disclose the abuse five months ago, two important truths quickly became apparent. The first being that shame can only live in secrecy. The moment you decide to shine a light on your shame, it begins to lose the self-loathing it feeds on; it no longer metastasizes. I also learned that sharing my story involves an intimate dialogue, and more importantly, finding people who are compassionate listeners. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy based on my own experience with my wife. We have been married for 26 years, and even though I love her dearly, I still struggle with being an authentic listener when my wife shares her pain and difficulties with me. My default position is to offer advice, suggestions, or misdirections, but that is not what most of us are looking for when we share our vulnerabilities with someone. What we really need is for people to “be there with us” not “be there for us”.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown identifies six common listening responses that appear to be preprogrammed reactions, which in effect, not only impede connection but also leave the person sharing with more baggage to deal with. Reading these six patterns, I felt heart-struck knowing that on various occasions throughout my life, I’d delivered every one of these harmful listening responses. (1) “The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you.” This is the person who recoils in horror and says: “Oh, you must feel terrible.” So much for finding someone to listen to your pain, because now you're the one doing the consoling. (2) “The friend who responds with sympathy rather than empathy.” That’s when you adopt that maternal tone and say: “There, there. Everything will be OK.” No strength or understanding can come from that type of response. (3) “The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity.” This is the friend who feels let down by your inability to manage your problems. There’s nothing like having other people pile-on to your shame party to make you feel like dirt. (4) “The friend is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that he/she scolds you: How did you let that happen?” For me, this is the most devastating response because it reinforces the belief that I should never open up to people, and as I said earlier, not being able to talk about your shame and fears allows them the secrecy to metastasize. (5) “The friend who is all about making it better.” This is the response I’m most guilty of when I say: “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” “You know everybody loves you...respects you.” (6) “The friend who confuses connection with the opportunity to one-up you.” I’m horrified writing about this response because if I’m honest, I do this every day at work, or with acquaintances and neighbors. It usually plays out something like this: A colleague says: “I feel so terrible. I forgot to send my daughter to school with money for the charity raffle at lunch today.” And that’s when I say: “You think that’s bad, one time I forgot to send my son to school with a Christmas present for his teacher. He was the only kid in class who didn’t have a present for the teacher. When I picked him up that day, he was a sobbing mess and didn’t speak to me all evening.”
I think we are all programmed to respond to someone else’s pain in one of two ways, either going into fix-it mode or retreating into self-protection mode. If we look at Brene Brown’s six problematic listening responses, it becomes apparent that either of those polar responses to someone else’s pain is an impediment to our ability to be an authentic listener. The American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has written a lot about awakening wisdom and compassion in ourselves as an means to be buoyant in these turbulent times. In her book The Places That Scare You, Chodron writes: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals.”
If I’m to be a better listener, I need to be mindful and present. By opening my heart to you and being with you as an equal in vulnerability, I have an opportunity to hear what you say in a space of authenticity. I’d like to leave you with the insightful words of Winston Churchill: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”