Listen…Even When No One Is Speaking

What does it mean when someone takes a long time to answer a question? What does it mean when someone answers what seems like a simple question with sarcasm? What does it mean when someone says they are going to do something and then they repeatedly don’t?

It’s my job to listen. But so much of what people “say” isn’t in their words. It’s in their tone, a “look,” their behavior.

“What is this person trying to say?” Do you ever ask yourself this question? Instead, most of us tend to be more focused on what WE think of what the other person is saying, what WE are going to say in response, and how what they are saying makes US feel.

I do a little exercise to listen well. I imagine myself being the other person. I try to be a middle aged man whose mother wasn’t warm with him and whose father died at an early age, who is now sitting here before me making excuses instead of just apologizing to his wife. And when I do that, I can feel his shame, his lack of direction in how to make this woman I believe he loves happy. When I do that, my direction shifts in how to be useful to this man. If I am disconnected to him, I might emphasize the importance of making an apology, or confront him on his excuse-making, or even feel annoyed with it. But if I can stay connected to him, I can relate better to what his intentions are, and help him make his intentions better understood to someone he cares about.

Regardless of what stressors plague people’s lives every day, they mostly talk to me about their relationships. We have all kinds of relationships: our families, our friends, our partners, our children, our coworkers, our neighbors…the list goes on. From my earliest days of training to become a therapist, I’ve enjoyed helping couples. It is difficult work, for sure. Two people to listen to and try to understand. Two people with different upbringings, personalities, priorities, and styles. Both want love, and yet are wounded by the person responsible for providing it. It’s heartbreaking work, at times, and at other times, it’s the most inspirational of all. Whether you are most concerned about your couplehood or another relationship in your life, listening well – even when no one is speaking – should be your goal.

Michael P. Nichols wrote a book on listening called The Lost Art of Listening. In it, he described listening as “selfless,” as “existing for the other person” (p. 64). Usually, we are too focused on trying to offer something supportive, or useful, or in our defense, that we aren’t really connected to what is being said to us, or why it is being said. When I am listening to a couple, one is frequently complaining about the other, to which the other gets tense and begins to defend themselves and their actions. What the “accused” is not doing is hearing the first person’s experience, and why it is important for them to talk about it. They are too focused on how being criticized makes them feel, or makes them look in front of the therapist.

Classic Example: Dan is complaining that Sally doesn’t seem to want to spend time with him. Instead of sitting on the couch and watching TV with him, she is turning around laundry, or texting her friends, or Facebooking. They don’t have sex nearly as often as they used to. When he talks about his day, she barely murmurs a “mmhmm,” and doesn’t really seem to care, and then the kids interrupt anyway, and he loses her completely to them. What she hears: All day long, Sally is attending to other people’s needs: work, kids, in-laws, her own family, her friend’s 40th birthday party she is helping to plan. When the day winds down, she just wants to check out and do something mindless or for herself. Can’t he understand that she can’t do everything and take care of him too? He’s a grownup, but sometimes she feels like he’s another one of the kids expecting her to make him happy. What he hears from her response: I’m another chore. I’m not a priority. They said this would happen. You get married, buy a house, have kids, and you don’t have any fun any more. I just didn’t think it would happen to us. What Sally is NOT hearing: Dan misses me. At the end of his day, he wants to talk with me. He wants to share his downtime with me. Even after all these years and changes to our bodies, he is still attracted to me and wants to be with me. He needs me to feel happy. I am important to him. What Dan is NOT hearing: Sally is overwhelmed. She does a lot for a lot of people, and she does those things because she loves us. It’s hard for her to be needed all the time.

Sally cannot hear the compliment in Dan’s complaints because she is overwhelmed. Dan isn’t helping her hear him because he is listing complaints without expressing appreciation for her intent.

How do I know that Dan is complimenting Sally? And that Sally is a loving and giving person? Because I’m listening – not just to the words, but to the wistful tone of what they’ve lost, the sadness and stress I can hear in their words, to their behavior in showing up to a counselor and trying to express themselves in front of one another. What they are “saying” is that there are a lot of things they are trying to accomplish and while they are doing so, they are losing something that was once important to both of them: their friendship and their romance.

Granted, I get to be the objective observer, so I’m not as challenged by what is being said as Sally. But when I am the one being complained about, I have two tricks to keep me engaged and focused on the other person: 1.) What would I think/feel if they were saying all of these same things but about another person? (I would be able to listen and be supportive, of course!) 2.) If there is something I need to hear and could change from this conversation, I’m going to be wiser and better for it.

Another Example: I give homework assignments to clients. And sometimes clients come back without the assignment done and reasons for why it isn’t done. Repeatedly. Week after week, no assignment. But lots of good reasons.

How much do you want to bet that they don’t want to do this homework assignment???

Maybe they are scared of it. Maybe they aren’t ready for it. Maybe they aren’t convinced it will be useful. Maybe they don’t want to be unkind to me, but they really don’t see the point. If I don’t listen to their behavior and what it might be telling me, I could become offended, declare them “noncompliant,” and begin to withdraw OR confront them on their lack of commitment to therapy. But if I can see what the procrastination might mean, I can ask them about it, and we can have a meaningful conversation about what is going on, and increase understanding exponentially.

Turn On and Tune In (But Don’t Drop Out) In the 1960s Timothy Leary popularized a phrase given to him by friend Marshall McLuhan, “Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out.” In his 1983 autobiography, Flashbacks: A Personal and Cultural History of an Era, he explained that his intention was NOT “’get stoned and abandoned all constructive activity.’” Rather:

‘”Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change”’ (p.263).

And yes, he felt psychedelic drugs were useful in accomplishing this, but I digress…

What I’m asking you to do is not simple, AND drug free!

How to Turn On and Tune In So You Can Listen Well

Use Your Five Senses Pay attention to your body, to how you feel in this moment, sitting or standing here. BE inside your body. Pay attention to your breathing. Feel that where you are is where it is important for you to be right now. Tell yourself that whoever you are with is important for you to be with right now. And when they are speaking, feel as though there will be something important for you in what is being said. Something that will enhance your life.

Yes, they might be going on and on about lugnuts, but I’m telling you that if you plug in the way I’m asking you too, all of your interactions and conversations start to carry a meaning. Listen to the lugnut story. Watch how it is being told. Feel why it is being told, to you, at this time. You might pick up on Mr. Lugnut-Story’s social anxiety and that he found someone to talk to and someone to talk about and you are – right now in this moment – giving him a life preserver in this party. You might find him very engaging, even though the topic itself didn’t initially interest you, and he might remind you of your late Uncle Al, which makes you feel warm and nostalgic. What results is a feeling of connection and understanding.

Active Listening? In active listening, we are taught to show the speaker that we are listening by facing them, leaning forward, making eye contact, and using “uh-huh’s” and “mmhmm’s” to punctuate their sentences. These are all important ways to demonstrate that we care and are listening, and are very much appreciated by the speaker.

However, what I am suggesting today is – while you are active listening – you search for your speaker’s intent: What are they trying to tell me? Why are they trying to tell me this right now?

Not because it will help us defend ourselves better when we make our rebuttal, but because it will help us connect with our speaker in a deeper way, and improve the chances of this exchange being useful.

If she’s crying while she’s talking, he might feel embarrassed or uncomfortable that she’s making such a “big deal,” or feel bad that he “made her cry.” But if he is existing for the other person in this conversation, her tears will show him how hard this is for her to talk about, maybe she doesn’t want to complain, or maybe she’s pent it up for awhile, and he can hand her a tissue and reassure her that he’s glad she found the courage to talk about it.

Listening to Our Kids A couple of summers back, my daughters went to visit their grandparents for a couple of weeks without their dad and me. Toward the end of the trip, my younger daughter was misbehaving. I asked her Nana to describe to me exactly what was happening, and it sounded so clear to me that she was homesick and resenting being there. She was checking out, and her misbehavior was her way of saying “I’m done. I don’t want to be here anymore.” At 5 years old, she didn’t have the skills to communicate that, so it leaked out through her behavior.

When observing kids’ naughty behavior,.ask yourself what the goal is of their misbehavior. Most kids aren’t really trying to make anyone miserable. And if they do indeed seem to enjoy getting the adults riled up, they probably like having power, and having an impact on their surroundings: “Look what I can do!”

It’s the same with adults or kids. What is the intent? What would this person like to accomplish? Thinking in those terms allows us to stay engage with them and be productive, instead of drifting off into our head and into our personal feelings and reactions.