This weekend I overheard a typical mother-child exchange at the Whole Foods cafe in which the mother laid out a plan for her five or six-year-old son: “You need to eat your lunch and then we’re going to go,” she said. The boy, all wiggles and distraction, said nothing to this plan. To which the mom replied, “Listen! You need to listen!”
And that’s the word that caught me: listen.
Everywhere I’ve turned recently I’ve been caught by that word: listen.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Never Split the Difference by career FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss (recommended by Meg on the Sorta Awesome Podcast). Voss’ basic thesis is that almost all communication is negotiation. And at the heart of negotiation is listening.
Actually, it’s not just listening, but letting the other person feel heard.
Voss outlines a lot of strategies for this: paraphrasing, mirroring, labeling, empathizing, and unconditional regard. He says that one of the main goals in negotiating is for someone to say “that’s right” when you explain back what you hear them saying.
I tend to think I’m a fairly decent listener. But in reading this book, I realized that even if I’m very good at taking in what the other person is trying to communicate that’s not enough. They want to be heard; they want to know that I’ve heard them.
The other day I was having a phone conversation about politics with someone close to me. I came home and told my husband Evan about it, and I said, “I know that I should have been practicing all that stuff about listening that I was learning, but honestly I just wanted to have [that person] hear me and what I thought.”
To which Evan responded, “Well that’s pretty much everyone’s story, all the time.”
Isn’t that the truth though?
We want to listen. But we want to be heard more.
This is not the first time I’ve come across the importance of active listening. I know that it’s the foundation of therapeutic counseling—creating a space in which someone feels safe to really share. The counselor reflects back what the client says, helping the client feel understood and somehow at the same time gaining new understanding.
It’s also all the best advice for how to have a decent marital conflict as well. A spouse shares what’s wrong, the other spouse reflects it back, and the first person gets to say, “that’s right, or no that’s not what I meant” before trying the whole loop again until eventually both parties feel heard.
The trouble is that is really hard. It’s why counselors go to school and get paid a lot of money to listen. It’s why there are so many marriage books and even more marital conflicts: listening, and letting the other person be heard is really hard.
I’m not sure exactly how to get better at listening. I imagine that it’s a combination of believing in it and practicing it—the mirroring, paraphrasing, labeling, and summarizing—when all I want to do is tell my side of the story. The more we believe that becoming adept at letting people be heard is worth practicing, the more we’ll do it; the more we do it and see how well it works, the more we’ll believe in it.
Mothering right now is a lot of listening and reflecting back what I think Jackson is trying to communicate. He cries around nap time, “I hear your said cries; I think you’re tired.” He refuses another bite at dinner, “I think you’re saying you’re full.” He squawks when we’re sitting on the couch, “Up please mommy!” I say for him.
Even when he gets words, I know from my niece and godson that two-year-olds love for you to repeat back to them what they’ve said, so they know you’ve heard them. Toddlers live in a constant state of wanting to be understood and having a limited means to communicate. But truthfully even when we have thousands of words at our command, people don’t really listen and understand us much of the time.
Listen. Repeat. Listen. Repeat.
Prayer is like that too I think. Evan and I are pulling together a few things to help train people at our church to be Eucharistic Prayer Ministers (i.e. praying in the back of the church with people individually while everyone is taking communion.) And I come back to listening. You listen to the person asking for prayer. You listen to the Holy Spirit. And you pray aloud what you’ve heard.
Because we believe in a God who listens and hears: “I call on you, my God, for you will answer me; turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.” (Psalm 17:6)
We think when we’re talking that we want most of all for someone to agree with us. Or we think when we’re praying that we want most for God to give us what we’re asking for. But maybe we actually want to be heard.
Sure, sometimes I think we ardently believe that it would be better for the person to come around to believe in what we’re saying, or that what we’re praying for is good and right and God’s heart for the world.
But all the time we want to be heard.
Yesterday morning the Common Prayer reading was that very strange story of Hagar and Sarai and Abram from Genesis 16—the one in which everyone is making sub-optimal choices. Hagar runs away, pregnant by Abram and abused by Sarai, and God comes to Hagar at a well in the desert and tells Hagar to go back, that He knows her story, and that she’ll be alright, the mother of many. And Hagar does what she’s told to do saying, “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” Nothing changes about her situation, except she knows that God sees her, that God hears her, that God has not forgotten her.
Maybe that is what we are called to do: to be ministers of God’s promise that He sees and hears and does not forget his children. When we are listening and hearing their stories, we are reminding people that God listens and hears, sees and understands. He has not forgotten us, and in the middle of trials, He has good plans for us.
How do you practice listening when you just want to be heard? Do you have any tips for me to become a better listener?
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