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Talking and listening, that’s a tough one. Ideally, the talker has just the same amount of words as the listener has just the amount room for. Ideally, when it is the listeners turn to speak, they in turn have just the exact number of words to neatly fill the listening shelves of the new listener, who was the first speaker. No one ran out of room, no one ran out of words. Giving and receiving. I’m bringing fresh homemade canned goods to your pantry, you bring dried fruit to fill up my shelves. Happy happy.
Remember I am talking ideally here, no matter whether the listener and speaker switch very automatically every few minutes, every few sentences, or whether it is of a more serious nature and those turnarounds take longer. The same rules apply. I am talking here more about those serious discussions. But in any case when the speaker is done they feel satisfied, they got it all out, they said it all exactly the way they wanted to say it in order to feel satisfied with themselves. They can see on the listers face that the listener really got it.
Best case scenario, the listener might let that speaker know, “ I got it, is there anything else? I’d like to know some more about this, I’m really digging on what you’re saying.” Then the speaker might choose to speak more or they may say, “ no I’m good, why don’t you speak a while. I feel deeply heard, and am now ready and open and waiting to hear what you have to say. And furthermore my dear, I welcome your disagreement, your rebuttal, your feelings, or your side of this issue. I will try my best not to be defensive”.
Then speaker number two speak to their hearts delight until their words are all gone and they feel satisfied, they feel full even though they are empty of words. Now the former speaker who is the listener feels full and satisfied because they can think of nothing else that they would like to hear. The two people gaze at each other both feeling double full. Full from having gotten rid of all their words, that full feeling of having been deeply heard, and full from having heard the other, full of the other person’s spirit and reality.
At this point you may well be wondering if I am telling you a fairy tale. A made up story about a made-up couple in a far away make-believe kingdom. A kingdom where everybody is perfect, where dysfunctionality has not yet crept in. It makes you wonder how long this type of deep communication existed between Adam and Eve.
Problems arise of course when one person gets full quicker than the other. When one person, while filling their own needs , is annoying their partner, causing their partner to feel depleted. At which point of course the speaker feels like a schmuck. The listener, since they felt attacked, goes on the counterattack. The initial speaker gets defensive and guess what? They get kicked out of the Garden of Eden. They have tasted the forbidden fruit. The communication Apple was full of morons
Let’s start with the brave speaker. The reason I say brave, is that it always takes some courage to broach any topic of importance or intimacy, basically anything to do with a relationship. No matter whether it’s as small as how your partner squeezes the tooth paste or as large as feeling unfulfilled in the relationship. It takes courage.
So the speaker just got going , they laid the groundwork, they gave the listener some background, they gave two or three examples I’m they are right on the edge of launching into the main meat and potatoes of what they want to say. At this point the listener says “I’ve had enough.” They do not say “thank you, that was so interesting, I understand you better now. That must’ve taken a lot of courage.” They do not say “let me see if I got this right” and reiterate back to the speaker. Nor do they say “I really get you so far, but if you’d like to talk more, possibly there is something else I could learn.” They sure as hell don’t say something like “so far I’ve kept up with you and I really hear you but there are some feelings coming up for me that are preventing me from hearing anymore, and before I seem angry, or feel a tendency to punish you with words or looks or body language as though you were doing something bad to me, I have to withdraw and come back when my ears are fresh, when I have more room on my listening shelf.” Oh, no! That would be way too high level for that low level listener.
Now let us switch to the listener a moment. They are just getting into the groove of listening, they are beginning to get an inkling of what the speaker is speaking about, they are eager for more, they see the table, smell the food and are expecting a feast on the table and suddenly, the speakers says “I’m done. That’s all. That’s it.” The listener feels left hanging, let down, confused, anxious. Yes, perhaps even pissed off! Like they were dropped off in the middle of the wilderness. The best case scenario, which of course never happens, would be if the listener kindly and patiently told the speaker what information they still needed, and tried to help that speaker find words for emotions that are hard to find and label and express, to express themselves more fully. Of course all of this would have to be done in a non-critical angry or impatient tone. Never letting on that they feel left hanging out to dry.
When the speaker, having been encouraged by the listener, finally finishes they say, “oh thank you thank you, you beautiful listener, for helping me say what I have trouble saying.” Then they both smile, feeling very full. And perhaps hold each other and gaze into each others eyes. Gotta love good fairytale.
Of course the worst case scenario is that the frustrated anxious listener who suddenly gets dropped, attacks the speaker through body language, choice of words or voice tone. In essence saying to the floundering speaker “you suck in the use of the English language and self-expression and being able to get in touch with your feelings!” So you can go to workshops and you can read books about communication so that you never have any communication issues. Or if you do have any of the above problems, you quickly can look at the manual and get straightened out. Yeah good luck with that!
So I went to a couple of communication retreats for couples. It was called ‘openhearted listening’. The very very very short description of this openhearted listening is (I had to read a thick manual, do a workbook, and attended three workshops to learn what I am about to give you in a few paragraphs, so stop complaining and count your blessings) this: the person who has something to say takes the hands of their partner, looks lovingly into their eyes and asks “would you be willing to do some open hearted listening?” The listener, if they feel they can meet that request, says “of course my darling.” Or they are allowed to say, “give me a few moments to prepare, empty some of the cluttered shelves in my pantry so that I can be a better listener my love.” Then the speaker begins by giving preferably a single incident (always better than dumping a whole lot of saved up issues all at once); “yesterday when I waited for you and you were an hour late I felt angry.” If you need to elaborate a bit on that one incident that is OK. “I was in the middle of something, I rushed off leaving it half finished because it was important for me to keep my commitment and pick you up, when I got there and had to wait an hour I was really angry”.
The listener by far has the more difficult job. With great empathy and love, trying their best to put themselves inside the other person’s skin, the listener says “so you are saying you cut short some very important things you were doing so you could keep your word to me, and then were very angry when I was an hour late”. The speaker may give other additional bits of information or they can say “yep, you got it that’s it thank you.” So that first step is just getting the content, the incident correct.
Now on to step number two. The listener has to zero in on the feeling- “it really made you angry when you had to wait?” The speaker then either says “Yep that’s it” or they can say “well you know now that I’m thinking about it I think I felt equal parts disappointment and some sadness too.” Then the loving enlightened listener feeds those additional feelings back to the speaker and they can even add a hunch or another feeling that their dear partner may have had, “so you’re now saying it was equal parts anger sadness and disappointment. It seems to me possibly there may also have been some hopelessness, sort of like, ‘what’s the use of even trying to keep my word’?” At some point the speaker says, “ Yep those are my feelings you got them all.”
Then comes the last and the best step, number three. The desert. Pay dirt. Validation. This is by far the most difficult step because the listener has to void themselves of any feelings or reactions and truly try their best to put themselves inside the speakers shoes. The listener says, “I can totally understand, I get it, after what happened who wouldn’t feel sad and disappointed angry hopeless etc.” As I said, this is the most difficult because it’s hard not to feel attacked and blamed or criticized, but rather to slip into the other person’s skin and really see how it felt, and then to let that person know with words and heart and eyes and body, that they are perfectly normal and OK, that it is understandable to have those particular feelings. Even though you as the listener might have reacted differently, even though you don’t often feel anger, even though you have good excuses and reasons for being late, even though your insides are screaming to explain and defend. That person across from you has some feelings that need healing. That’s all. Simple.
It is seldom about the incident because there will always be other incidents, it is more about those feelings that come up, which are crying out to be healed.
The ultimate goal with all of this of course, is that that same husband in the above scenario, five years into that wonderful fairy tale healing relationship, is able to wait an hour for their late spouse, and meditate in peace and serenity, and, when they’re frazzled always late, disorganized wife finally shows up, he is able to bless her and listen to her instead. One can dream. I know this technique fairly well because I attended three different workshops. I did one workshop with one wife, then I did another workshop with another wife and then that wife and I took a second workshop where we were junior coaches. The instructors probably held us up as a shining example. But, sad to say, apparently we needed more than two workshops.
Old habits die hard, especially bad ones. But this old dog, I am happy to say, is learning some new tricks. Needless to say, it is not always easy. When every fiber of your being believes that your partner is shouting at you, is criticizing you, is telling you that you’re a worthless piece of junk, it is extremely hard to just hear them out. It is extremely hard to try to find some empathy and let them know that their feelings are valid. It does not mean you agree with them. It does not mean that you are guilty or bad. It does not mean you do not have a good explanation for what happened, or an equally valid side with equally valid feelings. It just means that they are human, that you triggered some of their very normal feelings. And guess what, when you have an issue they will do the same for you. Or later, when you bring up your side of that same issue, your partner we’ll deeply listen to you and validate your feelings.
No one promised us it was going to be easy.
Reminds me of a verse from a song I just recently wrote:
Mama it just won’t stop hurting
Something must be bad wrong
Your wisdom I miss, you said there’d be days like this
But mama, It’s lasted so long.
Come tuck me in clean up to my chin
Sing me that Homestead lullaby
Where you sat by my bed, your cool hands on my head
Saying hush now child dry your eyes
Hush now child don’t you cry
Of course there is a beautiful yodeling section to round out this beautiful heartbreaking hurting country song reminiscing about our mamas unconditional love. Because it truly is during that impressionable time of our life, where are our parents first gave us that sweet taste of having our fledgling feelings validated, or not. If not, we grow up to write sad country songs wishing for that childhood we never had.
So get out there and validate somebody’s feelings. Better yet, validate your partners feelings. Better yet, validate your children’s feelings. That way they will grow up believing that all of their feelings are okay, and go through life needing very little praise or validation from the outside world or those around them. Others will stand back in awe and great wonder and proclaim,” there flies a beautiful and rare bird, there flies a bird others will want to flock to.”
Validating. So simple. So hard.