The Lost Art–Part Two

Last week end, I was given a wonderful gift. Someone told me about an experience she’d had recently. I listened to her observations and opinions, and expressed my support. When she finished, she said, ‘Thank you for listening.’

Later in the same afternoon, I watched a DVD from Britain, and in the course of scripted conversation, Party A thanked Party B for listening. They are apparently very polite in Britain—this happened two or three times in a single episode.

What is it about listening that is so special that when you do listen, people feel you should be thanked? It can’t be simply good manners. There’s something more that compels gratitude and appreciation in people (or so it seems to me).

People usually don’t talk TO one another, they talk AT each other. Even when they hear you, they often don’t listen. It’s almost worse than being overtly ignored.

Listening is a wonderful and unappreciated activity—I love to listen. It’s rewarding and enriching. When someone shares an experience, a feeling or an idea, I feel privileged and honoured. I am engaged, and for a moment, I am part of the other person’s life, even if only as an observer. Listening is an effortless way of expressing care, or love. (It is effortless in that it requires nothing from you, but it can also be very difficult. It sometimes takes a lot of effort to say NOTHING.)

We know from experience that it is a beautiful feeling to be heard. In the previous article on listening, I mentioned a priest who was very popular as a confessor because he was such a good listener. When parishioners discussed worries or problems with him, they felt unburdened, or at the very least, they felt understood by the time the conversation was over.

I also worked with a psychiatrist who, during his sessions with clients, sat with his feet up on his desk and his eyes closed as the client sat across from him and tried to talk, usually to his wing-tip shoes. I attribute his therapeutic success to the astute use of psychotropic medications; it is doubtful counselling had much to do with it. (His receptionist was a much better listener than he.)

Confiding in people isn’t always comfortable, no matter how well you might know them. What you have to say may be a delicate subject, deeply personal, very negative, or possibly be upsetting to the person to whom you want to speak. When a person in that situation chooses to share, s/he may feel s/he is taking a huge risk. (And to be blunt, if s/he FEELS s/he is taking a risk, then s/he IS taking a risk.)

What does this risk entail? People dislike exposing vulnerabilities, being seen as sick, weak, or foolish. What they have to tell may make them appear ignorant, irrational, or immoral. That may be the principle concern that makes talking so difficult. People who share something personal are hoping for support and validation—are hoping for it and deserve it. Judgement and brutal criticism have no place.

I worked with a man who judged and criticized everything I said or did; he thought I craved his approval. I was so damaged and undermined by his constant negativity and critical commentary that I became unable to function, and was greatly relieved when we finally parted company. My feelings were validated when I confided to someone else that I did not trust this first individual, and was told, ‘Neither do I.’

I understand why being open with another person is risky. I remember vividly how much it hurt to feel vulnerable and have that vulnerability taken advantage of. I also remember how great it is to have support—the man who said, ‘Neither do I’ will never know the full extent of his effect on me. It felt fantastic to be heard—to receive intelligent and responsive replies to my comments and confidences. I feel restored when someone agrees with me or supports me.

It is thrilling to be confided in—I relish the trust, appreciate the risk, enjoy the richness of a shared (if only second-hand) experience in someone else’s life. I feel I’ve been given a gift being healed when someone says, ‘Thank you for listening to me.’

I wonder why it’s such an unusual thing.

Many of the blogs and articles we read these days are negative, critical, and destructive. In any instance of notoriety, you can look on facetube and read angry and irrational reactions to a devastating event, usually heavily laden with misrepresentation and misunderstanding. There is enough negativity in the world already.

It is time to heal.


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