Jonathan Delavan discusses the one thing that keeps anyone from simply and truly listening to someone else.
What does it take to listen? A question that has been answered for years now; and yet the question remains for many people who find cliché answers unsatisfactory or inapplicable to real life. I struggled with this for the longest time during my years in therapy as I desperately sought to be heard by others while trying in earnest to offer my “wise counsel” at the same time. Sadly, such good intentions I had for myself and others were exactly the very obstacles that kept me from understanding and practicing the essential skill to simply listen.
Don’t get me wrong, wanting to be heard and to help others are good intentions for anyone to have. However, my methods were truly counterproductive for both myself and those around me.
Typically, the scenarios looked like this: I would be with a friend or friends where the conversation became personal or intimate. Either I would be trying to share something of myself, sometimes a personal struggle or problem, or I would be listening to the friend who came to me to talk about their struggles. In the former case, I would hold conscious and unconscious expectations from my friend based on my reason for sharing at the time. In the latter case, I would try to “listen” by actively anticipating what I should say to best help my friend. However, in both cases, the end result would frequently fail to meet the desired outcomes—and sometimes disastrously so.
For the longest time I failed to understand why this kept happening in my relationships. Didn’t I have good intentions when I “listened” to them? Wasn’t I “actively listening” by being mentally proactive in my conversations? Why weren’t my friends being considerate of my advice or needs when I “shared” with them? What was I missing?
After much agony, soul-searching, and patient guidance, I came to realize that I was not necessarily missing something when I listened, but, rather, I had too much of something else that was getting in the way. That something else was my ego.
That’s right, my ego was the problem. My ego was the thick filter by which I tried to be heard by others as well as to listen to them. I hate admitting that it was my ego that got in the way, but trying to deny this tendency has only made it worse.
What do I mean when I say my “ego” gets in the way? Well, as I (currently) understand it, my ego is my narcissistic perspective of myself and others that alternates between the extremes of “Don’t worry, I have all the answers! So let me do you a favor by enlightening you from your ignorance.” and “I’m broken / I’m a helpless victim / I’m an irredeemable wretch! But still, please help me!” Yes, my understanding of my ego has also come to encompass my long denied self-pity, which I had masqueraded as my so-called “godly humility” for most of my life.
My ego actually kept me from truly listening to others or from compassionately sharing with them because it always kept the focus on me and not the person I was talking with. The consistent result was that I ended up hearing only what I wanted to hear and only sharing what I judged to be what the other person needed to hear. Thus, the other person was always absent from the equation—my ego did not leave room for him/her to be a part of it.
It took me a long time to finally realize the unconscious pattern had played out time and again in my conversations with others. When I finally did, I found myself with a brand new problem: What can I do differently to truly listen to others and have them more likely to listen to me as well? An incredibly difficult question in and of itself! This is when Henri Nouwen came along to help me figure this out.
When I finally came to this unpleasant epiphany of myself, I was starting to read through Henri’s personal spiritual journal, The Inner Voice of Love. As Henri admits to himself (and in turn the reader), he struggled with being heard and supported by his friends and colleagues. So much so, that he resorted to subtle manipulations to pry affection and support from his friends, which caused his friends to feel used and become even more distant—the opposite reaction to his desperately desired outcome! To remedy this relationally destructive pattern, Henri had to gently remind himself what it meant to truly listen, who to share his struggles with, when to share and when to just listen.
In essence, Henri came to realize that he needed to live out a paradox in order to have his relational needs authentically met. To put it simply: before he could hope to find friends who would truly listen to him, he needed to learn how to truly listen to others first. This became a workable answer to my new question.
In order to finally practice listening without my ego in the way, I first had to shut up. For me, this meant keeping both my lips shut and my mind quiet while remaining present. This was really hard for me to do for the first several encounters—exhausting even! However, I quickly noticed how much more I was able to actually listen to my friends—to hear them, their stories, perspectives, pains, and hopes—when I remained silent both verbally and mentally. In time, my friends became nervous over my intentional silence, wondering if there was something wrong with me. As best I could, I tried to share my recent practice to truly listen through verbal and mental silence. My initial attempt to share my thoughts and experience of this new personal practice was met with mix responses. Regardless, I knew at that moment I was onto something real here!
So what does it take to simply listen? According to my recent experiences, one is able to truly listen when he/she is able to make the relational space for the other person to simply be as they are at that moment. In other words, one has to be willing and able to let go of his/her ego while maintaining his/her presence in order to make room for the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and perspective to be heard and received. Granted, it is impossible to completely remove your own biases, but this concept is meant to push you beyond that point within yourself—past your ego. This principle applies to your intimate relationships as well as complete strangers, and every possible relationship or interaction in between.
This is no easy task mind you! It requires a lot of effort and self-awareness to pull off, especially with people who tend to “push your buttons” frequently. There is no guarantee that the other person will appreciate or reciprocate your listening. Nevertheless, as with any skill, it becomes easier and more tangible with mindful practice and compassionate support.
In conclusion, let me challenge you, dear reader. Based on what I have shared with you today, do you think you have been able to simply listen to your friends and family? Have you been able to simply listen to those different from you? Those who push your buttons? If your answer is something along the lines of “not really”, then take heart, you are not alone in making this all-too-human mistake.
I hope you can learn from my experiences to improve your own relationships by simply listening. Feel free to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences about this issue in the comments below.
Photo Credit: Ian Sane/flickr