Cut open a conversation. Strip away the surface smile and look beneath the polite “mmhm.” Peer into the vacant eyes and see the thoughts - hundreds of them - fighting their way through the cerebral cortex, desperately wanting to be set free.
Realize that this conversation - like most conversations - is not the two-way street it is meant to be. It is not an exchange of ideas through verbal expression. Instead, it is a tug-of-words that carries on day after day, week after week, for years. It is a never-ending game of push/pull in which each party gives a little in order to take a lot.
This is not a conversation at all. Nobody is listening.
We think we are, but we are not.
We interrupt each other, finish the other person’s unfinished sentence, and continually try (mostly unconsciously) to bring the conversation back to us.
We sit next to someone we love - a dear friend we haven’t seen for weeks or months - but we are absent. They open their mouths and their words tumble out - words that we only partially hear because, as we sip our coffee and nibble on some cake, we are lost in our own circumstances and anxiously waiting for the opportunity to unleash our own discombobulated opinions, rebuttals, theories, and “truths.”
We say, “I know exactly how you feel” not because we know exactly how they feel (can we ever know exactly how someone else feels? Do we ever live someone else's life?) but because we want to share one of our own stories.
(Your Grandpa died? I know exactly how you feel. When my Grandpa died I was eight years old... and the tug-of-words continues).
We are trapped in a perpetual cycle of “waiting to talk.” Not because we are bad people, lousy friends, or poor partners, but because there is a deep need inside all of us to be heard.
I suspect it’s a need that arises in childhood, when most of us are told to “be seen and not heard,” to “be quiet in class,” to “shhhh.” We understood, early on, that our parents, our teachers, all of the adults in our world were busy. They didn’t always have time for our convoluted tales. They did the best they could, of course, but we didn’t want to be a bother, so we kept our thoughts mostly to ourselves and didn’t say the things we wanted to say.
We are saying them now though, whenever we can, to whomever will listen.
And here lies the crux of the problem - we are so consumed by the act of talking, so addicted to the sound of our own voice and the transmission of our own stories, that we have lost our ability to listen - really listen - to the stories of others.
Listening is not as simple as it looks. Real listening - the kind that has no underlying motive - takes practice and patience and resolve.
It requires a willingness to open your mind and your heart to fully receive the story that is being shared. It requires self-restraint to remain silent even though the words being spoken make you want to scream. It requires courage to stay present and grounded enough to see life through someone else’s lens, no matter how spotted or smeared that lens may be.
For the past two months, I have been actively trying to become a better listener and a more conscious friend. To be mindful when someone else is speaking, to turn off the flow of words inside my own head, and to immerse myself in the authentic sharing experience that is taking place.
The results, thus far, have been mind-boggling.
Friends whom I’ve known for years are sharing their previously unspoken hopes and deepest fears. They are divulging long-buried secrets and closeted pipe-dreams. They are opening up in a way they have never opened up before. And not because I am asking questions or digging for answers - but simply because I am there - really there - and I am willing to listen.
It is a privilege is to be invited into another person’s psyche; an honour to be entrusted with another’s personal mythology. It offers a tremendous opportunity for empathy, compassion, and growth.
After I have really listened to another person, I am always overcome by feelings of peace, joy, and profound gratitude for the genuine human-to-human connection of which I have been a part. Listening, I now know, is incredibly healing.
May we strive - all of us - to be better listeners. May we slow down, shut up, and be there. May we allow for pauses without feeling the need to jump in and clutter the silence with our own opinions. May we cherish those we love by creating a space for them that is comfortable and safe. May we come to understand that real listening is an art and an act of grace.
It is our right, as human beings, to be heard. And it is our duty, as human beings, to listen. After all, “the most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention” (Thich Nhat Hanh).
Cut open a new conversation - one in which all parties are present, awake, and willing to relinquish their own narrative in order to embrace another’s. See the eyes - bright and alert. See the hearts - open and receptive.
See new kinds of relationships start to form, ones that run deeper than ever before. See the wounded child that lives inside every one of us start to heal. See the lessons being learned and the voices being heard. See the power of silent attentiveness at work.
Listen. Just listen. And watch your world transform.
This week's affirmation: I strive to be a better listener, a more mindful human being, a more conscious friend.