What is worth fighting for? Sometimes a battle is won in a courageous show of strength and derring do. A fire fighter runs into a burning building to save a child. A passerby stops to help victims of an accident. A pilot steers a damaged plane to safety.
But sometimes the battle requires showing up time after time with love, kindness, and patience. Not giving up on someone. Having faith that love will win. Believing that relationships can be salvaged.
Listening, truly listening–without an agenda, without interrupting, without offering solutions or fixes, without criticism or judgment–is a rare thing. But it is vital to relationships. And it is a gift to be in a position to listen. Someone is trusting you with their story, their feelings, their hurts and hopes. That is precious. How can we best listen to each other?
In this thoughtful article, Martha Caldwell offers advise for listening compassionately in the classroom that really applies well to any situation. As a compassionate environment transforms a classroom, it too transforms any relationship. Consider her suggestions:
1. Be fully present. We bear witness to someone’s felt experience by giving them our complete and undivided attention. Paying full attention when someone is speaking creates safety and focus in the classroom. Compassionate listeners maintain complete silence and pay attention not only to words they hear, but also to facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, noticing even the silences between words.
2. Know listening is enough. Listening with deep attention involves a calm, relaxed state of mind, free of the desire to “fix” someone or solve their problems for them. It does not involve giving advice or intervening in any way. If our minds are busy coming up with solutions for the speaker, we fail to truly listen.
3. Respond with acceptance. Deep listeners are motivated by the desire to understand how others feel and how their experiences have affected them. Their genuine interest and heartfelt concern make it safe for others to share their vulnerabilities because they sense that what they say will be received without judgement.
4. Understand conflict as part of real-life learning. A learning community in which people are encouraged to be honest and express how they feel involves a degree of risk. Conflict may arise. Sometimes this happens, and working through difficult feelings may take time. However, when we stay connected and stick with the process, conflict can be a catalyst for positive change. When conflict can be resolved, relationships often become stronger.
5. Ask authentic questions to learn more. By asking open-ended questions like “What was that like for you?,” “Can you tell me more about that?,” or “What were you experiencing?,” compassionate listeners guide speakers to share more deeply. These questions are motivated by the desire to honestly learn more (as opposed to reinforcing preconceived notions). If they think they may not have understood something, listeners can repeat back what they think they heard and ask for clarification. “Did I hear that right?”
6. Be gentle with yourself. Deep listening involves compassion for yourself as well as for others. Accept yourself and your internal feeling responses without judgement. Allow yourself time to process and learn.
7. Treat the candidness of others as a gift. Honor the trust others have placed in you and keep what you hear confidential.
Today, listen deeply and be grateful that someone is trusting you with their story.
We tend to think of peace as the absence of violence as quiet is the absence of noise, but is it more? Perhaps peace is active. It exists in the kind word offered, the refusal to meet hate with hate, the comfort of following higher principles, the strength of the outstretched hand. It is so easy to lose, to slip into mirroring the hate and violence we see around us, to sit silent in front of a bully, to trade barbs, to slide down. Peace is active. We maintain it in our hearts and mind. We breathe deeply to draw us back to that peaceful place. We remember truth, honor, decency, compassion. We breathe in all that is good, we exhale the bad.
Author Shauna Niequist talks about the anxiety we are all experiencing now and suggests breath prayer:
“Christians have been practicing breath prayer since at least the sixth century & there are lots of ways to do it. One way that’s been helping me lately: choose one word to pray as you inhale–what you’re asking God to bring into your life/body/spirit/world, and one word to exhale–what you’re asking God to carry for you, so that you can release it as you breathe out.
Inhale healing/exhale fear.
Inhale peace/exhale anxiety.
Inhale hope/exhale despair.
Inhale hope/exhale chaos.”
As you move forward into your day, remember to take deep breaths, center yourself, and carry on.
Do you like to read the end of a novel first? Maybe especially when it’s a particularly stressful novel, and you want to make sure your favorite characters come out ok? It’s comforting, isn’t it? To know how the story ends, that no matter how deep the characters are in trouble, they will find a way out. And then you can read the book without being so nervous.
In this world, though, we don’t get to peek at the end of the book. We soldier on hoping and working toward better tomorrows. And we don’t know what will happen to our favorite people. Or even ourselves, for that matter.
But we do know, when we look back at the story of our own life, or at the greater story of the world, that great things have often come out of very trying times. Great art, certainly. But more than that, great advancement–inventions, cures, technology. Maybe even peace.
As we go through these challenging times, let us keep our hopes on the possibility that tomorrow will be a better day, even if that tomorrow is still a ways away.
We all hurt right now. Our whole world grieves the loss of what once was. The present turmoil and divisiveness weigh us down. Each of us is struggling.
But what of the children? How are they doing? How will they remember this time?
They look to us to keep them safe, to care for them, to put their needs first. They don’t understand the greater turmoil. They see, keenly, what is right in front of them. What is that?
While we may not have a ton of control over world events, we do have control over how we treat the littlest among us. Consider the profound effect your words and actions have on children just starting to be introduced to the world. Temper your anger, your frustration, your dismay. There is no harm in having a full range of emotions, and teaching children that they, too, will be subject to sadness and disappointment, frustration and anger, bewilderment and helplessness as they age. But never let them forget that you love them and are with them and that you will stay in their corners come what may.
In this increasingly polarized world, how do we come together to solve the very real challenges we are facing? If conversations with those who disagree lead to broken relationships rather than common ground, how will we work together?
In this insightful article, Kern Beare offers some insights:
Prioritize the relationship over being right. Research shows that our fight/flee/freeze survival drive is often triggered when someone challenges our deeply held beliefs. Research also shows that when that happens, we lose a host of cognitive capacities that are at the heart of being human, including empathy, moral reasoning and even intuition. Bereft of these capacities, the conversation — and sometimes the relationship itself — typically comes to an unsatisfying and even ugly end.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Evidence abounds that differences in values, attitudes, and beliefs become far less significant when a deeper basis of relationship is formed — especially when it’s rooted in our common humanity. [It’s important to] learn strategies for building such relationships, in turn strengthening the critical capacities you need for creative engagement.
See beyond your story. Most of us have the (often unconscious) assumption that our “story” — the particular set of life experiences from which we derive our sense of self — is the totality of who we are. This merging of “self” and “story” explains one of the most surprising findings of neurobiology: threats to our story-self — to our values, attitudes and beliefs — activate the same parts of our brain as threats to our physical self, triggering our fight, flee, or freeze reactions. When this happens, simmering disagreements can quickly become combustible.
At the same time, we’re learning that our identity encompasses far more than our story. Studies show that a more expanded sense of self emerges when we “switch off” our story-self, unleashing a host of positive emotions and attributes. These include joy, compassion, gratitude, flexibility, creativity and receptivity to new ideas — all of which counteract our survival drive instinct. [Learning] more about this “expanded self” [can help us] to access its capacities.
Transform resistance into response. Resistance is our early-warning system that our survival drive is beginning to kick into gear. When we’re in resistance, our attention narrows, our heart rate increases, and our stress levels rise — all signals of an emerging fight, flee, or freeze reaction. The neuropsychology of resistance [helps inform] why transforming our resistance into response strengthens our cognitive capacities, and how the brain has evolved to actually help us undergo this transformative process.
Preface to the book: Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together by Kern Beare
Perhaps these strategies can change the thermostat in our conversations and help us reach a place where we can work together to solve the problems ahead.
Sometimes joy is a matter of perspective. It’s reaching down and being grateful for it all, the mess, the euphoria, the triumphs, and the tragedies. Grateful to be here, to have a voice, to have people to care about, to have a chance to make a difference. Joy in it all is a choice.
In Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen unpacks this further:
Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently from the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it. What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.
What is the promise behind the circumstances that threaten to steal your joy? Is there something hopeful there? Seeing that promise may just be the key you are looking for.
We humans are an inventive bunch. When confronted with limitations, we’ve always found a way to persevere. Communication was once limited to face to face, but then we thought up written alphabets, mail, books, telephone and telegraph, radio, TV, internet, and now Zoom.
We’ve adopted new virtual ways to hold meetings, teach class, and stay connected. We persevere, and most important, we always look for ways to help, using the gifts we have and perhaps stretching them to fit the limitations of our new normal.
As we make our way through this new normal, rather than mourn the lost way we used to connect, perhaps now is the time to adapt and stretch to fit our present reality. How can we be present for each other, particularly for the youngest and most vulnerable among us, in a way that works right now today?
From Shari: what are some new ways of doing things that you’ve found helpful in our current world?
For me, Zoom has been a godsend. I’ve been able to attend a virtual reunion, participate in book clubs, stay connected with friends, and make author visits to schools all while maintaining appropriate social distance. I’ve also found I’m writing more snail mail.
Are pleasantries a thing of the past? Asking after someone’s health and family? Really listening to their answer? Showing concern? Waiting your turn to talk? Making sure your words don’t wound?
For most of us, we can identify moments in our past where we were lifted up or shoved down, and often both of those extremes were a result of someone’s words. What we say has power, and we would do well to wield that power wisely.
From Shari: what are some words you’ve heard recently that lifted you up?