Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pausing to listen

Image Credit:
It's ironic, but for a person who is seeking to understand others better, I am a shocking listener.

It's true.  My kids will shout loud in agreement - it's something they regularly complain about!  Even right now, at this moment, here I am with my head engaged with a computer keyboard, formulating something I want to say - and if my daughter decides she wants to talk to me, she's gonna get frustrated because I likely won't hear her, first time 'round.

I find I'm a little better with written conversations (which is probably why I have taken so avidly to blogging).  I guess the medium itself slows things down a little, so it is easier to focus on what someone else is really saying.  Yet even in print, I regularly shoot off an answer (loving discussion, as I do) and realise later that I had not fully read the thing I was commenting on;  or that I had missed some point or other; or that I had actually MIS-read what the person was saying.  At least once, I've mistaken who it was I was replying to!  (Sorry Doug and Stuart...  gulp!)

That's me!  Galloping ahead with my own thoughts and opinions, and missing half of what's going on around me!

And I've been thinking on that, a bit.  Usually, when I realise something I've missed - it's when a little time has elapsed and I revisit the post or comment (or conversation, if it's in real-time).  It seems to me, that a little pause is absolutely necessary to real listening.  My head goes so fast and loud, sometimes, that I need a BIG pause! 

Seems to me, that real listening is another facet of really being present.  Something I'm realising I'm not very good at.

So - I'm going to work on that.  Blurting-out-bull-at-a-gate me, is going to start slowing down, and shutting up.  I am going to bite my tongue if I have to, shut down my incessant internal chatterings, and Actually. Listen.

One of my facebook friends,  Roxanne Amico, posted something wonderful the other day, about this, and her words have stayed with me so I am going to share them:

"But what of more room for steeping in the tea of ideas, prior to reacting to what one perceives is being said? Or prior to responding what one fears is meant? Often, this way of doing dialectics turns into a battering ram...More questions are needed. If the point is to truly learn, we are going to need: More listening. More reading. More pausing. More silencing of our own belief systems, to allow new, unfamiliar possibilities. 

I love that...  "More steeping in the tea of ideas"!  Thank you, Roxanne...  gonna work on "steeping" a lot more.


  1. Kerry, thank you so much for the honor of so thoughtfully considering what I posted on FB! Much gratitude to you. I hope you will feel free to share this on the thread on Facebook--It would be a welcome contribution to the whole picture there!

    1. Oh Roxanne! Thanks for taking the time to drop in here - and of COURSE I will add to the fb thread!!
      xx K

  2. Hi Kerrie, this is a subject I have endeavored to immerse myself in for the last 20 years and I'm not sure I will ever perfect it, but I most certainly have become more aware of and sensitive to, peoples feelings, circumstances and situations surrounding me. I find for the most part it puts me at a great advantage because somehow through seeing things from others points of view, I never see life as black and white and I have realized I can choose the direction my life will take instead of coasting along with no information hoping something good will happen. On the downside, I am often perceived by others as quiet, too sensitive and withdrawn with no confidence, a real fence sitter, and as such people get quite a surprise when I voice my opinion and also quite annoyed that I usually have the right solution. I have also found that many of my friends only want to spend time with me when they have a problem and need someone to listen. Often they aren't even looking for a solution, they just want to vent. So here is the question...where is the happy medium? I feel as though I have been on this spiritual journey to help create peace for myself and others, but it has actually made me feel a little disconnected. Sometimes I wonder if I would be better off being blissfully ignorant.

    1. Hi Linda!

      Thanks for joining in, and for sharing your thoughts.

      I really get what you are saying about "not being black and white" - and have had one friend get quite cranky with me recently, for being a "fence-sitter". I think it is true that when you see more sides to situations, you can also experience more internal conflict - but I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing and need not equate to paralysing angst.

      As a person who tends to easily empathise with others, I have had to learn not to take everything on board, though. I am not responsible for the choices or emotions of others. It is also not possible (or even desirable, I believe) to solve other people's conflicts for them. Sometimes the best thing we can do, when we hear what others are saying, is to reflect it back without judgment, and simply enable them to process in their own time and way. I suspect (although I'm not great at doing this) that often a carefully worded question is more powerful than a logical solution.

      I'd love to hear some of the insights you've gained, and how you have learned to listen better. I think because I'm quite emotion-focused or something, I often sense how people are feeling easily and intuitively - but I totally suck at listening to the details!

  3. Great thoughts Kez, and really true in my experience. I spend a lot of time on forums, as you know, and these days I tend reply only after time has passed and I have read the posts again, as I find my understanding and the tenor of my reply are quite different if I do.

    I also think listening can be a skill of hearing what the person DOESN'T say. That sometimes is more telling than what they do say but you really have to be present and HEAR what they say in order to pick it up.

    1. Gins!!! You commented!! & yes - I am finding the same - if I wait a little and re-read before replying, I tend to engage more fully with what is being said.

      Love your point about hearing what is NOT said. On a related note - sometimes if I'm looking for a particular response from someone and they remain silent - it actually makes me look at my own motivations and my own self far more than if they'd actually said something. Silence really CAN be golden!!

  4. LOL. I have that same problem. There's always so much going on inside my head! All of what is going on there is hugely important to me, probably not so much to those I'm not giving my full attention to.

  5. Love that phrase "steeping in the tea of ideas". In our hurry up, achievement oriented world we don't take enough time to mull over things or chew the cud. Hey I don't even give my tea three minutes to develop the full flavour!

    Kerry I think you are right about real listening being part of being present. And being present also involves "being" in the present. Most of us don't practice "being". We are usually too tied up with "doing". Also most of us spend much of our thinking in the past or in the future which leaves us unavailable for the present.
    I read an interesting book a couple of years ago called " The Present" by Spencer Johnson. I didn't necessarily like the application of Johnson's ideas (he's a motivational speaker for businesses)but it gave me plenty of food (or was that tea) for thought. I recommend reading it if you can get hold of it - it presents a different perspective on the here and now.

    1. Rachel! You're back!! :-)

      Yes - it is very hard to "just be" even (maybe especially) if what you are "doing" is thinking!

      I think that when we can still ourselves and choose our thoughts and actions from a place of "presence" we are probably also more in tune with the Spiritual.

      Were there any particularly helpful tips you gleaned from that book, on how to actually get & keep yourself there?

  6. I tend to be pretty intentional about listening, but since I'm working to become a counselor, this seems to make a little sense. =) I struggle to understand those who struggle to listen, so this post gave me some great insight. Thanks, Kerry!

    1. Ohhh to be a naturally good listener! But yes, I think you are, Adrian :) I think, also, you have the ability to respect and listen to another's views, thoughts, and feelings and not lose your own self along the way. You'll make a wonderful counselor! :)

  7. Much of my university education involved attending three hour seminars every second day sitting in a roundtable fashion with a group of a dozen or two fellow students. Having all read the same classic book or treatise or paper or what have you, our task was to craft an important question about it and then explain why the question was important to the group. Each student would read his or her important question followed by discussion. Note, it took some students many months before it dawned on them that no answers to those questions were expected, that the whole point was to learn to read, think, consider, think, craft thoughts into writing, ask the important question, listen to the input of others, and then integrate all these offerings. Each of us had to write four written thesis papers per term and present a heavily annotated thesis paper to a multi-faculty panel per semester and a final paper per year (as well as an assortment of multidisciplinary projects throughout), so this process was quite enhanced with so much perceptive feedback. The quality of the papers was very high.

    I can say with confidence that I learned something important from each and every student and that the work he or she did in crafting the questions presented deepened my own understanding and comprehension of the text (or music, or art, or theorem, or whatever). And I know that I had the same effect on them (classmates I run across now always seem to mention - and then sing! - the musical harmonic round I presented as one of my minor projects, a project that they themselves had to learn the lyrics then perform in different acoustic settings (and discover for themselves) some difficult concepts in quantum mechanics).

    Passive listening has its therapeutic merits but active listening - making accurate meaning from what we hear - I think requires a lot of practice. Although I like the turn of phrase 'steeping in the tea of ideas', I think it falls a bit short of having to do something with these ideas rather than simply absorbing them like some intellectual process of osmosis. And it is in this 'doing' that our ability to plumb the depths of other people's talents and perceptions becomes rather fraught... especially with people unused to an interchange of challenging questions and critical discussions, people who feel that their pet ideas and cherished beliefs need to be handled with the utmost of care or they shall be personally damaged and emotionally scarred by some mean old commenter.

    I like robust ideas that can be tossed and kicked about like a game ball, one that stretches and exercises the mind and forces one to work a bit with it, to strengthen and condition the critical faculties, to enjoy getting to the central point, the heart, the meat of an important consideration, to recognize an idea's merit not on what we attach to it by some emotional investment but comes contained within it. This active participation in exploring and developing an idea beyond its shiny surface appearance creates a much deeper appreciation for it and produces meaning that it is owned, that sticks around within us long after the 'tea' has cooled and next cup of flavoured water comes along as its replacement.

    Of course, many people really don't want to do this with ideas; they are more concerned about appearing to own all the right ideas, say that they agree with all the right things, and belong to all the right country clubs of banal idea without every really having to justify why any of them is important, valuable, and meaningful to own. And I find it is these same folk who seem most susceptible to middle-aged angst about the purpose and meaning of life itself when all they've ever really done is work on collecting from the cafeteria of ideas the facade of what important life-affirming, life-enabling, life-promoting ideas sort of look like.

    1. Wow!! Tildeb you really do write well!

      "This active participation in exploring and developing an idea beyond its shiny surface appearance creates a much deeper appreciation for it and produces meaning that it is owned, that sticks around within us long after the 'tea' has cooled and next cup of flavoured water comes along as its replacement. "

      What a wonderful (and apt) image! & yes, understandings that have been wrestled out, challenged, examined, reworked truly do become part of us - and so much more than a "mental assent" to part of some smorgasboard of ideas.

      Your last paragraph, I think, was summed up beautifully by a commenter in Roxanne's FB thread (I'm not sure if you can see it on her page or not - you may need to subscribe) who talked about people who "wear their ideology like a fashion statement".

      I do agree with you that listening needs to be "active", in the sense that we really engage and wrestle with ideas. For people like myself, however, a little "resting" time is needed to allow everything to either become clear, or to synthesise different ideas... for that phase, of just ruminating and allowing thoughts to "percolate" I think steeping is a good image.

      When you talk about emotional investments in ideas, I think you are onto something really crucial for any honest thinker. We will never be free of emotional investments in beliefs and ideas... and I don't know that this would even be desirable - we are whole beings and emotions are part of what makes us wonderfully human. However it IS so important to be able to learn to recognise and examine our emotional commitments to things. To me, this also means that a HUUUGE part of really listening, is becoming aware of the what and why of your own emotional responses, as well as trying to "hear" and understand the responses of others, on an emotional (as well as intellectual, social etc) level.

      I think there can be a temptation to try and cut the emotional content out of discussions so that they become "purely rational", but I don't think that is actually possible. We are never "purely" anything - least of all rational! If we learn to be aware of the emotional component of our responses, and begin to understand the reasons behind this, we are more able to fully grow and move forward in our thinking and believing.

    2. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Kerry.

      A couple of comments:

      I don't mean to suggest that we can (or even should) suppress our emotional attachments to ideas. What I think is important is to recognize our attachments and appreciate how these can bias and prejudice us to how we listen to (and reflect on) criticism of the central ideas themselves. The result is that we tend to take this criticism personally when in fact they were aimed at the ideas. This natural tendency often harms our ability to listen well (and reflect appropriately) when we raise defenses to protect our attachment rather than hear the criticisms for what they are: an attempt to better understand the merits of some motivating idea... usually offered in the spirit of interest, friendly concern, and a willingness to engage.

      Also, I tend to see listening and reflection not as synonyms but two very distinct processes. Whereas active listening is important (I think) to really understand what someone else is saying, reflection is, as you suggest, very much a solo act that requires no other interfering input. This is where we make internal connections and organize our thoughts, testing hypotheticals (if that's even a word), weighing and evaluating different perspectives and concerns, and exploring different approaches we might take.

      Just as an example, other students editing my papers (we had to edit at least three other papers a week) often asked how I came up with my thesis from which the rest of the paper seemed to naturally and effortlessly flow. I don't think they believed me when I explained that I spent 90% of my time allocated for the writing of the paper coming up with just the right thesis. Once that was done, then the writing almost took care of itself, and this process depended, not on any kind of activity like reading and listening and searching for some unique question to write about but, solely from productive reflection where I made connections first that made sense to me and explored and explained them later in the paper. In this way I was always able to present papers that others very much enjoyed, like exploring the debate over spanking children in terms of a debate in ancient Athens over how to best treat a rebellious and re-conquered city. It's the same debate all of us face merely in different circumstances.

      In this sense and revealed in this way, most emotionally charged debates really do pivot around central ideas that we can rationally examine for merit, ideas that usually are applicable and personal to most of us. But the difference here is that once we undergo the examination of some practical and meaningful idea, we can now own our conclusions and claim them as our own. We can then use them in many ways because we have taken the trouble to create these tools for handy access in our mental toolboxes rather than reject or avoid them out of fear of hurting someone's feelings!

    3. Hi again, Mr T,

      I like your idea of using an analogous example, removed from an actual current or emotive issue. I think that is probably why parables are so effective.

      I agree with you that it is important to separate "ideas" from "people" - and I think this cuts both ways in a discussion. It is easy to be aggressive or argumentive towards a person who holds an opposing idea - just as it is easy to feel personally affronted by someone who disagrees with something you are emotionally invested in. Perhaps that's why I think communication on an emotional level is an important part of really coming to understand another person and connect well enough for true dialogue. Even though the points under discussion can, as you say, be discussed in intellectual and rational terms, to get to that point it may be necessary to understand firstly that we have an emotional investment, and secondly, why we have it. Otherwise you never get past either being aggressive or affronted. I think we're saying the same thing, really - just emphasising different parts of the same process :)

      Thanks for the discussion!

  8. Hi Kerry,
    I have been endeavoring to practice this subject for the past 20 years or so. I have been trying to take the time to be quiet and just listen wherever I am.It wasn't always easy to shut off my own thoughts and opinions in my busy day to day life as a working Mum.I always found solace in written conversation too. I tend to get a bit nervous in real time, worried that I wont get my point across correctly, but my writing just flows. Now it is becoming almost second nature and I feel it has given me a great advantage as though I have almost tapped into a secret source of Knowledge that helps me interpret situations and see relationships like having a second sense.I have also learned to switch off in overly dramatic be calm I suppose.
    On the down side people often perceive me as too quiet,not with it and soft, when in fact sometimes I join a conversation offering the right solution, people become annoyed because I wasn't part of the original heated discussion so why does my opinion count.
    I have also found that most of my friends only want to spend time with me when they want someone to confide in. Even though it is a big complement that they trust me and ask for my advice, sometimes I feel like no one is there to really listening to me.
    So here is the question...where is the happy medium between being a shocking listener and being fully present?

  9. Hi again, sorry for publishing twice. hen I checked for my published item it dint show up till I had published the second one lol feel free to ignore my ramblings :)

  10. Linda, for some reason a couple of comments got swallowed by the spam filter (which never actually catches real spam!) which is why you couldn't see it when u first posted - I fixed the problem once I realized. I'm glad you posted twice, though, because now I know which Linda I'm talking to :-)

    I did answer your original comment, but your rephrasing at the end here actually clarified something for me - "being present" in the moment is something you can do without any connection with others - and a good discipline to have , I think (not that I really have it - my mind is definitely a time and multi-dimensional traveller!

    I think being present "with others" is harder in a lot of ways. And I wonder if it is even possible, without a certain amount of reciprocity. You can't enter the inner world of another unless they are willing to be open & share a certain amount of themselves. That's different to just "venting" or having a whinge - which can just get draining if that's all someone does.

    Not sure if that relates to your question about "finding a balance", exactly... This us all stuff I'm just mulling over and trying to figure out myself. I don't think being present means being passive, though. Nor does it mean being responsible to do another person's "emotional work"

  11. Thank you for your advice about reflecting others problems back and posing questions. You really are a great listener and that was exactly what I needed to hear.I'm sure that my friends will benefit from solving their own problems without realizing they have. It would be good advice to myself too. I really need to tune in to what I want these days instead of complaining that I'm just not happy.
    I think I learned the art of listening unconsciously through trying to understand why I am different to everyone else. I have a friend who went through an awful marriage but wasn't prepared to leave. She used to say that she wasn't strong like me. I came to understand that no matter how I tried to help her, she wasn't going to leave. My friend was worried about her decisions making a bad impact on her children by separating from their Dad. My friend was waiting for her husband to make the choice to leave so she wouldn't have to take the blame. Her role was always as the passivist who could pick up the pieces for her children after the event.I found my role was just to listen unconditionally which gave her more strength than my advice ever would have.
    I also have two daughters in their late twenties that believe they are like chalk and cheese.My elder is married with 3 kids and her sister never appeared to want to settle down. Often I will get a call from one or the other asking my advice as to how to handle a situation that concerns her sister. Now that hey are older I have had to learn to step back, listen and let them deal, especially as they both live 2 hours away from me.Some how through my younger daughters reaction to some things my elder daughter said led me to guess that my younger daughter, who has always been a career girl, was in the family way. She is now renting across the road from her sister and planning a June wedding :)There are so many more stories to tell, too many perhaps.
    I am sure to put your advice into practice at work.I am currently working in a Day Centre as a case worker for young adults with disability. Some days are crazy with everyone chatting all at once,some with behaviors, some with psychosis and others who have trouble intellectually and just want to talk about their family and friends. I have been posed with situations at work where I have been trained to take a step back and be less personal, but I always felt there could be more done to help. Now I know there is. They really will feel empowered answering their own questions.
    Thanks again :)

    1. Linda when my kids were small, I went to a parenting workshop thinggy, can't remember much else, but they were talking about helping kids to learn to think through and solve problems... One suggested response (which I am sure I used word-for-word, many times, along with multiple variations) was "Oh gosh, that's a problem. What are you going to do?" You just reminded me of it - and thinking over some recent interactions in our household, I needed the reminder!!!

    2. Another one I like is, "Let me think about that," along with "How can I help you with your problem?"

      Owning problems is a very interesting and problematic undertaking. I have caused no end of confusion when I ask people if they have the power to change something... and if the answer is 'No' then I insist they don't have this problem. It doesn't belong to them.

      With many 'problem' kids, it's a remarkable thing when they understand that they do, in fact, own their responses to problems. Although the difference in ownership is somewhat subtle, I have found this understanding to be just the tool necessary for these kids to take control of themselves. And when the kid tries later to attribute their positive change to me, I like to say, "Don't blame me for your success. You own it."


Feel free to leave comments - I love discussion, & diverse opinions! So comment, add your own thoughts, disagree - you are welcome.

Its okay to comment anonymously if you are shy, but I'd much rather know who you are, & always appreciate it when people "own" their own opinions. Look forward to chatting with you :)