These days there is a lot of noise—everyone has a soapbox—but I wonder how much is really heard. This article explores the problem of autobiographical listening, listening with the hope of injecting a story about yourself into the mix. There are levels to this. The matcher, who always has a similar vacation or achievement to switch the conversation to. The topper who has an even better vacation or achievement to turn the conversation to. And the outright conversation narcissist where really all parts of the conversation somehow turn on him.
But if our goal is connection, we really need to learn how to better listen:
“Listen with curiosity. Speak with honesty. Act with integrity. The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply. We listen for what’s behind the words.”
Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Practice listening to understand. Avoid autobiographical listening:
“When we fail to listen from the other person’s perspective, we are listening through our own lens and tend to pass more judgments compared to simply listening,” Reigstad added. “There are four types of autobiographical listening ― evaluate, probe, advise and interpret. These responses tend to have us asking questions based on our experiences, offering advice to fix the problem and so on. It’s important to resist the urge and allow the other person to speak.”
Compassion is an active, engaging emotion. It recognizes that another’s pain is as important as your own and seeks to help alleviate it. It is the emotion behind all social justice reform.
Compassion comes from empathy which is very different from sympathy. Dr. Eric Perry describes the two like this:
To better understand empathy, it is important to distinguish it from sympathy. Sympathy is the ability to understand another person’s situation from your point of view. It is a self-centered point of view that helps you understand what the other person is going through based on your own circumstances. You are able to acknowledge how the other person is feeling but, from a distance. You do not become emotionally connected to the person. For example, you are able to sympathize with someone having problems in their relationship because you have had problems in your own relationship. You do not feel what they are feeling but you have an understanding of what they are experiencing.
Empathy is a bit more complicated and abstract. In order to experience empathy, you must have the ability to identify the emotion and to place yourself in the other person’s position. The focus of empathy is self-less. You are experiencing another person’s emotional life by your ability to connect with them. In a sense, you are vicariously feeling the emotion. For example, through empathy, you are able to feel a stranger’s loss of a child, even if you are childless, by seeing the loss through their perspective. Through this connection, you are able to wear the emotional skin of another and essentially feel with them.
The inability to imagine yourself in someone else’s place in order to understand what they are feeling will result in difficulty in connecting with others.
Narcissists and sociopaths can feel sympathy. They use their knowledge of a person’s emotions, not to help them, but to manipulate and control them. But the empathetic person shares the pain of another and works to alleviate it.
The good new is that compassion is like a muscle and can be practiced and strengthened. In this fascinating article by Greater Good, they outline some steps for increasing your empathy.
They identify four goals to the practice:
Bringing attention or awareness to recognizing that there is suffering (cognitive)
Feeling emotionally moved by that suffering (affective)
Wishing there to be relief from that suffering (intentional)
A readiness to take action to relieve that suffering (motivational)
Do you have any difficult people in your life? Chances are you can’t force them to be less toxic, but there are steps you can take to be less bothered by the encounter. In this article by Christine Carter, she suggests, among other things, that showing mercy to this difficult person will rebound to you:
Anne Lamott defines mercy as radical kindness bolstered by forgiveness, and it allows us to alter a communication dynamic, even when we are interacting with someone mired in anger or fear or jealousy. We do this by offering them a gift from our heart. You probably won’t be able to get rid of your negative thoughts about them, and you won’t be able to change them, but you can make an effort to be a loving person. Can you buy them a cup of coffee? Can you hold space for their suffering? Can you send a loving-kindness meditation their way?
Forgiveness takes this kindness to a whole new level. I used to think I couldn’t really forgive someone who’d hurt me until they’d asked for forgiveness, preferably in the form of a moving and remorseful apology letter.
But I’ve learned that to heal ourselves we must forgive whether or not we’re asked for forgiveness, and whether or not the person is still hurting us. When we do, we feel happier and more peaceful. This means that you might need to forgive the other person at the end of every day—or, on bad days, every hour. Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, not a one-time deal.
When we find ways to show mercy to even the person who has cost us sleep and love and even our well-being, something miraculous happens. “When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves,” Anne Lamott writes, “we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp.”
Here’s the real miracle: Our mercy boomerangs back to us. When we show radical kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance—and when we tell the truth in even the most difficult relationship—we start to show ourselves those things. We realize that we can love and forgive and accept even the most terrible aspects of our own being, even if it is only for a moment. We start to show ourselvesthe truth, and this makes us feel free.
Perhaps you can show that difficult person mercy today.
We can’t choose everything in life, but we can choose what kind of person we want to be.
As we deal with storms across the country and unprecedented blizzard watches here in Southern California, consider the importance of rain. Rain can be like encouragement, bringing nourishment and rebirth to dry parched land. It can promote an abundance of life and energy.
But, in excess, rain can cause flooding and landslides. It can sweep people away into rushing water and leave the landscape devastated.
Our words have the same power. We can be supportive and encouraging, fostering life and vitality in those we engage with. Or we can be harsh and critical, pessimistic and judgmental. Our words can both heal and wound. Our choice.
We can choose to be encouraging and supportive, rather than bleak and pessimistic.
We can avoid being the person who rains on someone else’s parade.
What do we regret most as we contemplate the end of our time here? Maybe the lesson from that regret can inform our present. In an outstanding commencement speech, George Saunders reflects on his own failures and encourages the graduating students to look for opportunities to be kind. He reflects on a memory haunting him from his childhood:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
We all have so many opportunities to make a difference, just by simply being kind, offering a smile, reaching out in friendship. And, when we reflect on the kindnesses that have made the difference to each of us in our own lives, we realize those little shows of kindness are what matter.
Saunders continues to remind each of us that our inner selves, our souls, shine as brightly as ever, and, even as we strive for success, to keep checking in with that inner place, and to believe it exists and greet the world from there:
Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
When you are confronted with a choice, err in the direction of kindness.
We tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. What that looks like in practice is forgiving ourselves for a lot of things–selfishness, neglect, mistakes–that we don’t forgive anyone else for when the same harm is done to us.
But what if we flipped that and gave other people the benefit of the doubt and show them the same understanding we give ourselves? What if their statements that seem hurtful are merely ill thought out? What if what feels like neglect is really just busyness with something else? What if everyone is intending to do their best, but falls short over and over?
Just like we do.
Instead of anger, hurt, and frustration, our relationships would be peppered with compassion and understanding and the ability to grow and blossom.
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.
None of us knows what the future holds. But we do know the values we hold dear—honesty, integrity, love, compassion, empathy, respect, tolerance. As we raise our children, we instill these values. As adults, we model these values whether we win or lose, succeed or fail, sink or swim. Watching us, they learn, and, as they go forward into their futures, they will bring these values to their own decisions. If each of us does this, we will leave the world a better brighter place for our having been here.
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.
Loneliness is an epidemic. That heart to heart connection with others, our world, our communities is lost as we race from one To Do to the next. Superficial greetings take the place of deep conversation, and we substitute more for better.
When was the last time you felt truly heard by another person–not heard so they could diagnose you or give you instructions for how to do better–but heard as though someone paused to notice the real you, the deep down you?
When was the last time you paused to consider another person, not as a means to an end on your own journey, but as a person with their own dreams and heart desires, their own wants and needs, their own untold story hoping to be heard?
When was the last time you paused to consider the world around you, from the beauty of nature to the miracle of your own next breath?
Perhaps our loneliness epidemic would be eased if we all were to slow down and notice each other, pause to realize we are here for each other, and be vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to see and be seen.
Mary Oliver’s poems open us in so many ways– to nature, to each other, to our own hidden places. Perhaps this one on loneliness will speak to you today:
When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider the orderliness of the world. Notice something you have never noticed before,
like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain, shaking the water-sparks from its wings.
Let grief be your sister, she will whether or not. Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also, like the diligent leaves.
A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibilities of your life.
Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away. Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.
In the glare of your mind, be modest. And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.
Live with the beetle, and the wind.
~ Mary Oliver ~
From Shari: what have you noticed today that helps you feel connected?