There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.
I read a poem recently, a cautionary tale, told from the point of view of a person who needed to talk, to be listened to. The poem reminded me that often when people need to talk, we jump in with advice, with a solution, with an explanation or an illustration. But if all that person wanted to do was talk, to hear their own thoughts out loud, to come to their own conclusions, we hijacked their conversation.
Impatience may not be a sin, but it is certainly not a virtue. How often do you give real attention to another person’s needs, to their cries and calls? Do you actually hear them? Or do you rush to give them what you think they need, packaged in a cute story or an amusing anecdote, and then chase off to complete your never-ending ‘to-do’ list? Some of us are great at giving solutions. My mother once said, “don’t tell me your problems if you don’t want me to find an answer”, her brain begins working right away, searching for a fix. Yet maybe that was not what we wanted.
In nursing we talk about active listening, we try to teach nursing students the art of patiently and attentively demonstrating that we are present, our senses fully engaged as we truly hear our patients. I don’t know how many nurses can manage that in today’s health care environment, where time and tasks are rushed and shortcutted. But to be listened to, to be heard when you are in pain, or trying to deal with a new diagnosis, or trying to accept a new way of life that is so different from the old, is an act of compassion and kindness. In itself it can by therapeutic, a healing act that creates wholeness.
Current events have reminded us that we still have a long way to go to redress the evils of the past. The legacy of cruel acts of slavery, of racism and oppression have left their imprints. I may not see myself as racist, but by virtue of an accident of birth and skin color, I benefit from a system that is inherently racist. When you try to tell me what your reality is I get offended, my feelings are hurt. Then I tell you how you are supposed to feel and I cut off all possibilities for a healthy conversation to ensue. I read an excellent article written by a professor who does diversity training. She tries to show the difficulty of holding honest debates about race in this country. Black people have learned that white people don’t want to know what it means to be black for it is counter to their perceptions. And it makes them uncomfortable. The professor likened it to someone pressing their foot on your head, and when you tell them to take it off, they tell you that you are not asking nicely.
But it is not just conversations that are needed. As long as the sociopolitical systems which perpetuate the inequities remain in place, our prisons will continue to be filled disproportionately with people of color. And our young men will continue to die in lamentable numbers.
We have to begin somewhere. And perhaps it begins with being prepared to listen, even when the words are uncomfortable and painful to hear. I know I am guilty of interrupting, of thinking I know what you are going to say, of rushing to judgment. I love words, I love to tell stories, but I need to remember the lessons I have learned by listening not talking. Native Americans, we are told, traditionally show respect by pausing after another person speaks, allowing what is called ‘wait time’. This not only ensures that the first speaker has completed their thoughts; it demonstrates that the responder is thinking, is taking time before answering. Perhaps we should practice this in our conversations!
We may think we are being helpful when we rush to give advice. We may think we are being nurturing, mentoring another, or preventing them from making a mistake. But often our ego is the one showing off, demonstrating our superior expertise and wit, trying to dominate the conversation. Brene Brown, in her TED talk on vulnerability, tells us that we hate to ask for help or advice as it shows that we are vulnerable and weak. The person who is giving is the one in control, the one with the power. She also said that in her study she found that the people who were the most vulnerable also had the greatest capacity for joy.
So this Friday morning, let us try to practice active listening, let us fight the instinct to respond, solve, advise, but instead simply listen, truly hear what the other has to say. We may be surprised at what we learn. And let us add wait time to our response, allowing for thoughtful and compassionate words to slowly emerge.
Have a fabulous weekend, Family!