On the value (and difficulty) of listening

Illustration of a rock wearing headphones

Listening well is super hard.

At first, it appears that listening requires much less work, and is less important, than other aspects of communication like formulating a bullet-proof counterpoint, a witty come-back, or some smart advice. You don’t really need to do much to listen right? It doesn’t seem like enough, and yet, much of the time it is.

I encountered this bit from Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness recently about the value (and difficulty) of listening and it struck me as deeply true:

The shadow behind our “fixes” we offer for issues that we cannot fix is, ironically, the desire to hold each other at bay. It is a strategy for abandoning each other while appearing to be concerned. Perhaps this explains why one of the most common laments of our time is that “no one really sees me, hears me, or understands me.” How can we understand another when instead of listening deeply, we rush to repair that person in order to escape further involvement? The sense of isolation and invisibility that marks so many lives–not least the lives of young people, whom we constantly try to fix–is due in part to a mode of “helping” that allows us to dismiss each other.

When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you do not want to be fixed or saved: you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored. If your problem is soul-deep, your soul alone knows what you need to do about it, and my presumptuous advice will only drive your soul back into the woods. So the best advice I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.

But holding you that way takes time, energy, and patience. As the minutes tick by, with no outward sign that anything is happening for you, I start feeling anxious, useless, and foolish, and I start thinking about all the other things I have to do. Instead of keeping the space between us open for you to hear your soul, I fill it up with advice, not so much to meet your needs as to assuage my anxiety and get on with my life. Then I can disengage from you, a person with a troublesome problem, while saying to myself, “I tried to help.” I walk away feeling virtuous. You are left feeling unseen and unheard.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I try too often to “fix things” instead of keeping space open so that others can “listen to their inner teacher.” I get annoyed or filled with self-doubt when others offer “tips” about how to solve something I’m struggling with.

Good listening is simple to learn but takes years to master.

I think it’s worth the time.

🗒 I came across this and other communication-related tips while reviewing the treasure troves of learning resources offered at Automattic.
I do work there and you can too. 😃

Comments welcome!

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