I have practiced the art of listening. It’s not the same as hearing. You drop all thoughts, open yourself. Put assumptions and your own value judgements on hold. Tune in. It’s an act of presence, and act of respect, and act of human connection.
I have listened to many peoples’ stories, since interviewing has been part of my career. I’ve also chosen activities in my free time where learning to listen to myself and others is the goal, in personal growth seminars, circles of women, and as a volunteer “listening” to new mothers.
To be clear, you don’t exactly need amazing social skills to be a listener – it’s more about self-awareness, and a lack of agenda. You can come at it from an intellectual perspective or from a spiritual one, it doesn’t matter. In simplistic terms, an absence or suspension of ego can help.
This is a role. This is also part of my mask. I am a listener, I ask people to tell me their stories, and then I validate them, by mirroring them back, sometimes in slightly different words. This can be a profound connection – or as simplistic as answering the questions on a French listening exam deploying basic comprehension skills.
Playing ‘listener’ is a format that I understand and which I can use to feel comfortable in social situations. It is also sometimes fascinating to observe (ego on hold) that in some cases I have, with gentle prompting, kept someone talking about themselves for so many hours that as I left, I noted that they knew almost nothing about me.
I had given very little away, and I was happy about that.
Most people love talking about themselves. Because I ask questions mirroring their answers, they can be surprised by the depths we cover. Some of them leave having learned something about themselves. I have had feedback about this – people say they value our conversations, or they “had never seen it that way before.”
You don’t have to “see” me, to reflect.
But how does it feel when you look into the mirror and see an altered image? Have you ever been to see a counsellor and had that jarring experience where the counsellor insists on asking about something or steering the conversation into a dry, empty area, parched of material?
As you say so, they light up, thinking they have struck gold because you must be hiding something! But no. As an autistic, I am just conveying information. I don’t want to waste appointment time on something that has never been a problem, or which has been, but which I feel I’ve unpacked sufficiently already. In my case, since my listening skills are quite honed, I perceive that in fact they are projecting, this is one of their own pet topics or areas of self-enlightenment. I resist the temptation to poke back with a mirroring question: “so how was your relationship with your daddy…?”
As you might have guessed, I have only done a limited amount of therapy because much of it was based on leading, and mirroring, things I am all to proficient at and usually see through. Also since I have alexithymia I never did cry at the right moment, leading one therapist to comment on my, “unusual, gentle” process and say I was incredibly self-reliant. I was actually a raging volcano of seething emotion without the right emotional settings enabled – but on the second point she was correct.
Back to my original scenario…I’m in listening mode with a friend or interviewee and they bring up a topic I’m knowledgeable about, or have read something about. The filing tabs in my brain light up and start rummaging for side-topics, information, tid-bits and the latest article in New Scientist that suggests that…have you heard of epigenetics?…they have this ritual in Japan…
And so it begins to unravel. In a good mirror, they see themselves reflected. Even at the superficial, flattery level, another person’s interest in their narrative, their story, has social currency and perhaps intrinsic value. But once the listener starts to come up with theories, trajectories, anecdotes and research?
Suddenly the object becomes subject. They see that this is no ordinary mirror. In fact its mirrored glass found in all good detective shows, with a bunch of experts frowning and peering through from the other side, trying to make sense, trying to compute, analyse and extrapolate. This is more akin to the mirror in Snow White, which talks back – and you may not like what it says.
A moment ago they were giving freely, now they step back, seem confused. The spell is broken. How did we come to be talking about something so intimate or controversial anyway? (Here come the disclaimers, usually some riders about uncertainty, opinion, some others might think…) If they were due to leave, it might start to happen now.
I’m well aware that someone with more versatile social skills than me may find a way to recover the conversation at this point. I’m also aware that, even if it failed and the discussion ended, again such a skilled person might find a way, via follow up phone call, text or email, to make amends, or to make their subject forget. This is about recovering conversations (and relationships).
As a general rule, I don’t have this ability. I can’t graciously unsay things, or get “back in someone’s good books.” In the moment, once I’ve lost control of the conversation then I can’t process fast enough to attempt a recovery. Post-event, it’s likely that I know something went awry, but may have misunderstood the exact word or action that brought the house of cards tumbling down.
Lost in translation
Here’s another caveat. For many years, when in listening mode, I have assumed that I understood what I was hearing, that I interpreted it correctly. In the case of professional interviews, I would generally write down the person’s actual words and/or record them, and the subject was generally factual. I’m not overly concerned, then, about major errors here.
But given situations in my personal relationships, and things my partner or friends have explained to me, I am not always truly hearing them when they speak. There are emotional nuances that I don’t pick up on. There are ill-crafted words I say that could imply other, further things, leading to misunderstandings about my feelings or motivations. Sometimes I mirror back inaccurately – we may be having two parallel but significantly different conversations.
My listening skills have given me a role, and have allowed me to connect and to continue some relationships. They have helped me to stay employed, and to survive some awkward scenarios at conventions and site visits. They have given me a shot at empathy, even though on occasions, it has been empathy for my imagined version of events, not the reality being expressed to me.
I do want to connect with people, I do want to hear their stories. I am interested, I do care. It’s not just smoke and mirrors, it’s my way of being social.
For the most part, I’ve not told my own story very well. In person, I’m likely to go off down a side-track with an anecdote, or regale you with excessive information. If I try to talk about emotion or relationships, it will rapidly become heavy, convoluted, and bogged down in my over-precise attempts to get across the nuances for which I probably don’t have the right vocabulary. My social scenario and cause for angst won’t quite add up (to many people). There will be a tonne of personal historical detail too complex to make sense of.
If I really get into my story, bluntly, honestly, told in the clean, concise way that I would like, it may be too raw to deal with. When I told my lovely NT friend about my diagnosis and mentioned in one brief sentence years of battling depression and anxiety, she was genuinely shocked to have had no idea.
Stranger in a strange land
It’s odd to discover halfway through a life that I may have listened but not heard, I may have felt along with someone erroneously, and that some of my most heartfelt words have just crumbled to dust and blown, incomprehensibly, away.
Listening, listening well, is the art of suspending the ego, and just opening to the present moment to see what arises. All that is past is story; the future is made of wishes and dread. All I can do is start over, wryly noting that the journey to know more about myself takes me right back to the beginning.
I don’t think I really understand you. Tell me about yourself…