Friday, November 12, 2010

A Familiar Face, And Open Ears.

I've recently begun to attend an extra meeting on Thursday nights, and I'm really enjoying the mix of people. I don't know if it's because it's halfway across the city, but up until last night, there hasn't been anyone I know at this meeting. Last night for the first time, someone I know from other meetings was there. I find it raises my comfort level in a new meeting, to see a familiar face. It can feel more welcoming - warmer. In some way, I feel as though I'm being heard in a way I might not when everyone else is a relative stranger. (I once expressed this to a friend, who joked that he was sorry, he'd been daydreaming when I'd been speaking, and hadn't heard a word; he'd had his face set on "autopilot.")

I've been thinking lately, about the fact that most of us don't listen very well. I first had training in active listening, when I volunteered for the local crisis line. The training had demonstrated, how poorly developed, are most people's listening skills. The trainers would break us up into small groups, one of whom would have been chosen ahead of time, and told to ramble, use sentence fillers such as "you know?" get sidetracked and never finish a thought, all the ways in which we make it difficult for our listeners. It was the first time that I considered listening to be an activity; before then, I'd seen the speaker as active, and the listener as passive.

It was enlightening to watch myself fasten upon "you know?" and be increasingly irritated with each repetition. Why was this? I realised that I'd been taught that this was an "annoying verbal habit." I judged it, and I judged the person using it.

Time and again, I'd catch myself getting hung up on the person's vocabulary, or their grammar, or tone of voice, and the content would slide past, half-heard. Active listening is hard work; it requires that we detach from our internal dialogue, and pay close attention to the other person.

I like to listen to program speakers while torturing myself with yoga poses; last night the speaker I had chosen, mentioned how difficult it can be to listen, with no assessing. and no judgement of the speaker, or what they are saying:

"To really listen, you have to temporarily surrender your personality - all your likes, your dislikes, attitudes, biases - you have to let it all go, in order to have room in your head to take in the message."

I had a situation recently, where a (not in recovery)friend and I, were in a small social group - 5 people - and afterwards, I'd mentioned that some of the language used had seemed negating or dismissive - lots of labelling, and assumptions. My friend asked that I elaborate, give her some examples - when I did, she responded that she hadn't heard any of that. I was surprised, as it had been gratingly obvious to me, perhaps because it was "criticism of others." The longer I'm in Al-Anon, the more aware I seem to become of this, and the more it bothers me.

In other areas of my life, such as my relationship with my spouse, I have not been a great listener. Too much emotion swirling, too much of allowing myself to get away with behaviors that I know in my heart, are not the kindest of choices. Too much rationalising about "not wanting to hear his excuses when his behavior" yada yada yada - I lose my focus, and when I lose my focus, I lose sight of both my listening training, and my program training. I know better. I pray to be aware and open-minded, to be a good listener, in all aspects of my life.


  1. I know that this is something I could improve on as well. I am not a great talker but often am not totally engaged or am critical in my thinking.

  2. Come to think of it, listening is probably the activity I enjoy the most. I've always considered the highlight of any party if I get the chance to have a 45 minute one-on-one conversation where I get to really REALLY know the inner world of one other person I find interesting.

    So it makes sense that I'm in 4 types of groups that are much about listening: 12 Step, Toastmasters (about speaking, listening, evaluating, organizing & leadership), Focusing (like meditation with partners who reflect back the essence of what was just said) and Quakers (who "worship" silently, "listening" for the voice of God/conscience).

    Being able to reflectively hear/ be heard with another is one of the most thrilling experiences in life. For me, that is.