Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Expert Listening

I just came back from a difficult committee meeting. Throughout the meeting, I felt a rising sense of despair, and realized it was just my growing sense of burnout. I reminded myself that I have a sabbatical coming up, and tried to tell myself not to get into a full-blown existential crisis over my despair unless it is still with me after my sabbatical!

What I found especially difficult was one person's participation. I watched with a kind of horror as he gave his analysis of the situation we were examining in a very calm and even dignified manner, but throughout his speech ended up insulting one person or group after another, until finally, by the end of his remarks, he had implicated just about everyone except himself.

He is someone who definitely needs some lessons in rhetorical sensitivity! It took all of my powers of sympathetic listening to listen expertly between the jagged edges of his own pain to the good points he did in fact make.

Yes, he made good points. Yes, the harsh edges to his words came from his own pain.

These point to the first two principles of Expert Listening: listen for good points; if something hurts, realize that the person is probably carrying some pain (that may have nothing to do with you) that is where the hurtful words come from.

It is hard to listen really well like this. When people shoot pointed words in our direction, it is hard not to feel like we are the target -- it is hard not to take it personally or become defensive.

It is especially hard not to take something personally when it is in fact meant personally! This is a Truly Advanced Principle of Expert Listening. (The secret to mastering this principle is understanding deeply and well that anyone who ever wants to hurt another person is wrong and is fundamentally mistaken about that person in some way. So, if someone wants to hurt you, they are fundamentally mistaken about you, in some important way. This is the part that can be really really hard to learn or believe. It is at least what has been the very hardest for me to learn -- and I'm not all the way there yet!)

Fortunately, I didn't have this particular challenge myself today, but I have had to deal with it in the past, and I expect that it will come up for me again, due to the nature of the kind of activism to which I feel called.

The reflex response to pointed words is to want to get the other person to stop launching pointed words, and maybe even to apologize. I indulged a bit in this reflex above when I suggested that the person needs lessons in rhetorical sensitivity! In that, I was wanting to change him, because I didn't like how he was insulting so many people I care about. My concern is also for him, because I don't think he realizes how much he undermines himself. If he did take lessons in rhetorical sensitivity, and expressed himself in ways that invite others to make connection with him and come on board with what he cares about, he would cause less pain and probably be more effective in garnering sympathy and support for his concerns. So, the reflex response is not totally off base.

But it is hard to change other people. People are resistant to change. People settle into habits of being and habits of communicating that are very hard to break.

So, if we hinge our own happiness on hope that others will change (become kinder, gentler, more inspiring, helpful, inviting, eloquent, etc.) we are doomed to miserable unhappiness.

It is urgent for all of us to learn how to accept each other where we are, and not keep trying to change each other.

"But we can't just let each other keep hurting each other, can we?!?"

There actually is another response: there are ways we can protect ourselves from getting hurt by others -- even when those others are trying to hurt us.

Expert listening is one such strategy. I really like that image of listening between the jagged edges of the other person's pain. In this, you are able to slip through the barbs and not get snagged and injured. You are able to see more deeply into who they really are and what they really care about, and have access to the best of who they are, even when they happen to be hiding their best selves quite well!

This is an important topic, and so I'll probably have more to say on this in future postings.

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