The Art of Listening
Recently, in a women’s locker room at a spa, I heard two women talking. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience; maybe it’s something about being vulnerable and getting undressed that makes women not only reveal their undies, but their innies, too – their inner most thoughts and feelings. These two women were clearly close friends. For the sake of this post, their anonymity, and to avoid any confusion, we’ll call them Betty and Veronica. Honestly, I never did catch their names.
The conversation started with them talking about the dynamic between their husbands. Apparently they weren’t getting along with each other on their family holiday. Betty said, “It doesn’t bother my husband so much – he’s pretty confident.” Oh-so subtly implying that Veronica’s husband was not. In her husband’s defense, Veronica replied, “Yes, but my husband gets confrontational when he’s drinking, and lately it’s pretty often. I don’t know why he’s so frustrated, maybe it’s because he doesn’t really like being a stay-at-home Dad.”
I was so curious about their exchange, I leaned my head around the corner of the locker to get a better look at them, and nearly fell over!
Upon this intimate and perhaps painful revelation, Betty didn’t seem very supportive or helpful – without any judgment it was apparent to me that she wasn’t very happy with her own life, and when she heard that Veronica’s was worse, it visibly gave her a little pleasure. I did everything in my power to stop myself from walking on over to them and offering my help.
The truth is there are many people who experience this feeling (mostly all of us); it’s called schadenfreude, scha·den·freu·de [shahd-n-froi-duh]. Its origin is of German descent, Schaden equivalent to harm or damage, and Freude, joy, and it means the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. You know how some people laugh when they see others trip or fall? That’s schadenfreude at its most basic level. But then it dawned on me, after a strange turn of events in the locker room, that perhaps it was less a case of schadenfreude, and more a case of “I-don’t-wanna-hear-this.”
Betty – for whatever reason – really didn’t want to hear Veronica’s problems. So much so in fact, that while her friend was mid-sentence, she turned around and quipped, “I need to dry my hair, so I’m going to put the dryer on now – we don’t want to be late.” And just like that she did. Not everyone can be a good listener, I suppose, but let me tell you that none of us can truly listen when we are too busy judging, or drowning out other voices by blow-drying our hair.
From an early age, giving advice came naturally to me; I always desired to, and enjoyed, helping people. If you’ve got a problem, let’s solve it! But one has to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Through life’s experiences and exchanges with others we all learn so much. It often comes in ways that are uncomfortable, but if we pay attention to the message, we can walk away with custom-made improvements in our ability to love, be a good friend, and an active listener.
My older sister, case and point: as an Aquarius – other Aquarians can attest to this – my sister is very vocal about her problems. She enjoys discussing them and ruminating over them with many different people, and in varying forms of expression. I, on the other hand, as a Virgo, tend to not vocalize what’s bothering me until I have mentally processed how I feel about it, and have come to some sort of conclusion or game plan. In general, Virgos are less expressive about their emotional goings-on. Our different styles of expression frustrated me at times, especially when she was asking for my advice, because what in my mind could be solved in 5 minutes, she wanted to discuss for 5 hours.
I wandered around in my silent-happy place for years pondering what I could learn from my sister – often after difficult exchanges with her. Growing up on completely opposite sides of the listening/talking scale proved an enormous gift for me in life, and work, and ultimately I realized I didn’t want to GIVE advice, I wanted to learn how to be ABLE to offer it. With my sister I learned to ultimately be patient in her process and really listen, no matter how (very) long that process took.
As a mentor, I not only want to impart wisdom and be a pure channel for messages, but I want to keep my thoughts and my attention completely on the person I’m counseling. I want to keep my mind free from judgment, and my own biases in order to be of the greatest benefit. No one can just solve a person’s problems as if by magic, “1, 2, and 3, abracadabra… you’re FIXED!” Or to reference and borrow a little bit from last week’s post about doctors, “Just take two of these, and you should be all better… NEXT PATIENT!” It’s so important to be fully aware, conscious of and focused on listening, because the truth is:
1. You CAN’T tell anyone how to solve their problem, until they are ready to hear you.
2. Don’t give an opinion unless someone asks for it, and that may take an hour, a month, a year, or never.
Everyone has to participate in their OWN problem solving; this enables each and every one of us to be an active participant in the solution, which creates a symbiotic relationship between the giver and receiver, the talker and the listener.
Sometimes we just want someone to listen to us; we are not necessarily seeking out advice, we are simply in need of a sounding board – a safe destination where our words and thoughts land without judgment – and we can walk away from the exchange feeling lighter, supported and heard. To quote a woman I truly admire, “Our job is not to judge another’s actions; our job is to listen beyond the words.” Karen Berg.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION:
Listen more, and talk less. Challenge yourself to a three day Silence-a-thon. Weigh in on what you hear. When you feel the urge to speak, ask yourself whether your input will be truly valuable. See what solutions you can uncover in your silence.