You have the capacity to neutralize many disagreements, get the focused attention of others, and connect more deeply with your partner, your kids, and your coworkers. This underutilized, often unrecognized and underdeveloped superpower is called listening. It is available to us all. And if we join up with like-minded individuals exercising this skill, we have the power to (potentially) change the world.
barriers to listening
Everyone is familiar with the painful, sometimes annihilating ache when our thoughts, feelings, and experiences are not taken in and considered by others. When we feel angry, sad, guilty, shamed, defensive, hungry, tired, or not heard ourselves our ability to take in another person’s point of view is stifled. If you include the common family and societal experiences of having our thoughts, experiences, and feelings minimized and ignored, it’s amazing that anyone has developed the ability to listen at all.
In a country divided by politics and lack of agreement about what counts as fact and what is fiction, listening in the larger social discourse has become rare. In this environment it feels natural to respond from the gut. The nature of reality is at stake. Who can listen when such fundamental issues are up for grabs? Disagreements take on a moral component. There is no point in listening to someone you regard as repugnant and morally bankrupt. When you feel attacked as a person, it is impossible to take in another’s thoughts. Add in online interactions, which allow people to react and insult without seeing the effects of their words, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a dysfunctional communication stew.
knowing how you feel and who you are
As a therapist, I keep in mind this bigger picture while working within family dynamics and the particular issues a client brings to session. Listening is thorny. It isn’t intuitive. To do it properly, you need to let the other person’s thoughts and feelings in without judgment, almost take them on as your own, and briefly stand in another’s shoes. This can feel (and can be!) threatening, particularly when you are working on your sense of self, identity, and personal boundaries. How can you effectively listen to others while still figuring out who you are as a person? You need clear boundaries in order to let ideas safely in.
Learning how to listen is a process. Step one? Pay attention to your feelings. Identify the emotions that come up when you feel heard and when you don’t. Think about the barriers to your capacity to listen—what is happening inside for you? What is getting in the way? Initially you may need to sort through your feelings after the fact. Eventually it will get easier to recognize them in the moment and make decisions based upon them.
some ideas are wrong—and should be corrected
Being a good listener does not mean being aggressively neutral. Some ideas are simply wrong. You do not need to listen to insults or take in lies. If you are a member of a dominant group, you have an obligation to challenge those who denigrate and disenfranchise those who hold less power. If you feel up to it, you can take on the emotional and experiential worlds of those whose views you find abhorrent as a way to better understand the potential causes of hate and perhaps feel compassion (another underutilized superpower!). But you do not need to legitimize someone’s beliefs in order to listen and understand.
You may discover that you hold some of these beliefs, or learn that your words are coming from a place of fear or guilt. Grappling with the prejudice within and confronting how many of us benefit from systems of power is often more difficult than taking on prejudice in others. But it is only by pushing past our initial discomfort and listening deeply to the wronged and wounded that we open space for change.
There will also be times when it will not be possible for you to listen or for others to hear. When emotions or other circumstances block your listening capacity, be gentle to yourself. You may also need to back away from those who seem unable to listen.
imagine if everyone developed their capacity to listen
When I am feeling particularly Pollyanna-ish, I imagine what a different world this would be if we all developed the superpower of listening. It would be transformative. We could take others’ words in and take them on. The compromises that would result would be shared, pragmatic, and emotionally connected. But of course humans and our larger systems are too complicated and flawed, too hungry for power and domination, for this vision to come to fruition. So I’ll take it small, slow changes, one interaction, reader, and client at a time.