When others repeatedly tell you that you are good at something throughout your life, strange things can happen. Of course, the door to the ego opens wide and it can go to your head. More likely, the praise ends up buried in a mental compartment labeled something like “already good at – just like everyone else – so I don’t need to work on it.”
We normalize our strengths and work on our weaknesses while the reverse would be much more helpful. This is what I did with listening. Friends, family, teachers and coworkers told me I was good at it; therefore, becoming a better listener never made my list of self-improvement goals.
It was an unlikely event that changed this – dinner with friends at one of my favorite Asian restaurants on a rainy Saturday night. It was the kind of evening that you look forward to for weeks because you will be with some of your favorite people sharing wonderful food and adult conversation while the kids stay home.
As we slid into the ornately carved wood booth, my mood shifted to unusually light and happy. My typical reserved nature was overshadowed by an impatient desire to be the one talking. There were things I wanted to say, and, with conversation flowing steadily among four couples, it was hard to get a word in. Laughter, stories and a scrumptious family-style meal filled the table, time passed quickly, and goodbye hugs were exchanged with satisfied, mutual fullness.
On the way home, a familiar restlessness swept through my mind. I replayed the evening, wondering why I had been so focused on what I wanted to say. I recalled a specific moment – holding my drink in the air as shapeless words floated around it – when I appeared to be listening to a story but I was really listening for a space to tell one of my own.
And that was when it hit me: We can listen for or listen to. I am pretty good at listening for things, and not just for my turn to talk. In a single day, I catch myself listening for what I expect my daughter to say when I ask her why her clothes carpet her bedroom floor, confirmation of the stories I make up about myself, criticism from a colleague, bickering sisters, grumpy cashiers and judgmental moms.
In The Listening Life, author Adam McHugh puts it this way: “In listening for, we are listening like a prosecuting attorney, trying to uncover a hidden motivation, catch the person in a contradiction or find something to confirm our suspicions. We are setting the trap, posed to say “aha!” at any second.”
It’s not hard to find what we listen for. But what will we find if we listen to?
A couple of years have passed since that lovely dinner that changed my relationship with listening. Through trying and failing and trying again, I am paying attention to how I listen and learning what happens when I listen to:
Someone I find hard to love says something hard to hear. In my head, I roll my eyes, I criticize. Something stills me just enough to listen more, to listen to. Buried beneath his rough words hides a precious dream. My judging heart turns soft.
Listen to, it connects who you are to who you want to be.
A group of friends is set to gather at my house. A few people cancel. I wonder why they’re not showing up; stories of being not-good-enough speed through my mind. I pick up my phone again to glance at a text and read the words on the screen , instead of the ones inside my head.
Listen to what IS, instead of for what may or may not be.
I show up at the gym with a goal in mind: calories to burn. I am determined. Halfway through the elliptical, the right side of my body screams, “stop.” With one foot on the machine, I pause. My number of calories seems more important than my pain, so I go on. Two days of fatigue and irritability follow.
Listen to your body. It has something to say.
I hear birds sing a winter morning into light. Later, a fog horn calls to life beyond land. Still later, the hum of my empty home’s furnace preparing for my family’s return.
Listen to your places, they speak the language of your heart.
I interrupt my husband – again. I wonder what he was going to say as my mouth keeps moving. I’ve run over his words with some of my own; a faint, familiar emptiness sets in: a moment lost.
Listen, for fullness.
Something triggers pain from the past. Suddenly, today is yesterday. I am who I used to be. But, when I listen to what is happening now – words spoken from loved ones who are trying and changing, fresh silences born out of healing, sounds of this year’s rains tapping taller, stronger lodgepole pines – it brings me back into presence.
Listen to now.
What will you listen to?