I’m sure we’ve all had the experience where we’re talking to someone and they’re just going on and on. We can’t seem to get a word in, and if we do manage, then the other person looks edgy and impatient, waiting for us to finish so they can start talking again. We really want to talk too, but eventually fall back into stoney silence. We can’t see the point of communicating with someone who doesn’t know how to listen.
Or perhaps we have a good friend who is confiding in us about their problems, but seems stuck in a loop, and can’t seem to get out of the anger, or frustration, or whatever it is that’s bothering them. We want to help, and we listen as best we can, but maybe they come back to us again, with more to vent, and we feel drained and exhausted, struggling to help them find a solution.
We have our own problems too, but can’t always find a good listener. Friends offer advice that we don’t want to take. We might wonder is our partner even really listening? The time to talk, and be really heard can be scarce in our busy lives.
In our attempts to communicate, whether consciously or unconsciously I think we are all searching for a kind of deep listening; to be fully heard by another human being. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Thich Nhat Hanh describes what he calls ‘deep listening,’ and how it has a healing effect. He describes the process of someone listening to help the person to vent their feelings. even if they’re not thinking straight or speaking with anger or bitterness, the point is not to interrupt and offer advice but simply to listen to help the person relieve their suffering. Ultimately Thich Nhat Hanh believes that this kind of listening, can heal the hurts that cause conflict, violence and war.
In our everyday conversation we don’t always listen like this, we tend to interrupt to tell our own stories, or to offer advice. Conversations tend to meander on a random path, with two people navigating, and with no particular destination in mind.
Once upon a time we did know how to really listen. In many indigenous cultures there was a tradition of deeply listening to others, so that one person could follow their own train of thought without interruption. There was also an understanding of the powerful healing effects that this kind of listening can have.
Native American’s have healing circles, where a talking stick is passed around, so only those holding the stick are allowed to speak. Australian aborigines, have a concept of ‘dadirri,’ a kind of meditative listening that can help people to heal from trauma, by talking about the past in a safe space.
These traditions suggest, that we don’t so much need to learn how to listen, but unlearn all of the habits we’ve developed from our modern culture of rushing around, and not having the time to fully listen or be heard.
More than anything parents need this kind of listening. We are doing one of the most challenging jobs in the world, divided up into our nuclear families, with one or two adults responsible for all the work that we need to do to keep our household running smoothly. We rarely have the support of others that a more tribal society would offer.
Luckily as parents there are some modern days tools we can use to recover this ‘lost art’ of listening. Patty Wipfler was a busy overwhelmed mum when she met a younger acquaintance, who asked her what being a parent was like. Patty burst into tears. She explained that although she had always loved children, parenting was so much more exhausting and stressful than she thought it would be. She confessed that she was starting to lose her temper, being aggressive towards her children in a similar way to how she had been treated as a child. As Patty talked, and cried, the woman just listened.
Afterwards Patty went home, and found that she felt completely different. She had much more energy, and renewed patience to be with her children again. Later Patty went back to the woman and asked what she had done. The woman explained about the simple method of listening she had used, and how it can help us to release our feelings.
Crying is a healing process, that allows us to release stress and upset. Dr. William Frey, a biologist, compared the tears we shed from chopping onions with those shed for emotional reasons and found that emotional tears contained cortisol, the stress hormone, so that when we cry, we are literally releasing stress from our bodies.
Research has found that clients in therapy make better progress when they cry during their sessions. This is what many of us know intuitively about having a ‘good cry,’ that it clears our minds and makes life seem a little brighter, so that we can figure things out and find a solution to our challenges.
Patty Wipfler’s organisation Hand in Hand parenting is designed to help parents be the parents they want to be. The cornerstone of her ‘Parenting By Connection’ approach is the concept of listening partnerships, where two parents take turns with talking and listening with each other. Each parent learns listening techniques that allow them to uncover their natural ability to listen, and help their partner find and release their feelings.
The turns are timed so it is equal. We don’t have the feeling of being taken advantage of and we get to be listened to as well. We can get out of that vicious cycle of feeling drained by listening to others and desperately needing to talk ourselves. We don’t need to cry to get the benefits, as just talking gives us the chance to vent.
When I first started listening partnerships, I was amazed at the power of simply creating a safe space to really talk. If I was exhausted and felt like I desperately need a break from parenting I would find that 10 minutes of listening time would give me the energy to go bouncing back into the room, ready to play with my daughter again. I even gave up caffeine, because simply letting go of the emotional baggage of the day, was enough to fill me with a natural buzz.
The benefits don’t just come from being listened to. When we listen with focused attention, the effects on the brain are similar to meditation. Listening actually lowers the blood pressure, and we are able to become more tolerant of people’s emotional outbursts, knowing that just allowing them a listening ear to vent and get it out, can heal the hurt behind it.
This can have a transformative effect on the way we parent. When our children behave in off-track ways, or have emotional upsets, it becomes much easier to take a listening approach rather than becoming triggered when we have enough listening time ourselves.
One day I was on the train with my daughter when she asked if I would count with her until we reach our station. We had been doing this a lot, but on this particular day I had a bad throat and cough. When I told her I couldn’t count because I needed to rest my voice she told me, ‘’I don’t like you, you’re not my mummy anymore!’’ A few minutes later the moment had blown over but as we got off the train I was wondering where this grumpy, hurt girl had sprung from.
Then I remembered the day before her friend Sally had come to play, and when my daughter wasn’t doing what Sally wanted she said, ‘’I don’t like you, you’re not my friend anymore!’’ At the time I hadn’t thought much of it, and a few minutes later they had been playing happily again, but it suddenly struck me, that this moment had upset my daughter and caused lasting hurt. So I said to her, ‘’You know when Sally says she doesn’t like you and you’re not her friend anymore, you know she still loves you.’’ I looked at my daughter’s face, and saw how sad she looked. We were in a busy train station, but I knelt down to her level, and looked at her, she immediately started to cry.
‘’You know she still loves you, and she’ll always love you.’’ She cried some more. I told her again, ‘’she doesn’t mean it. She just feels hurt and sad sometimes, and she can’t always cry.’’ I listened to my daughter cry, and I talked to her as well. I just kept kneeling down, rather than continuing to walk, so I could give her my full attention.
I knew that in moments like this, although she was crying, it was helping her to heal, there was nothing wrong in the present. I was just listening to her as she let go of her sadness, and reassuring her that deep down everything was okay.
She hugged me tight, as if to say thank you for listening. After that conversation she skipped through the train station with much more bounce in her step.
This is how we can listen to our children. In a process Hand in Hand parenting calls Staylistening, we can stay and be in the moment with them, knowing that our job isn’t to stop the tears, but create a safe space in which they can full feel.
It really struck me how deeply she had been hurt by a small offhand comment made by another hurt girl. Throughout life, all these tiny moments must gather up inside of people, and become immense anger or grief.
We can take a listening approach to our child’s behavioural difficulties, seeing every off-track moment as a sign that our child doesn’t feel good and needs to be listened to. It’s the ultimate unconditional love, that we accept our children, and deal lovingly with aggression, or other challenges. As we do so we break the cycle of passing hurt onto others. We are parenting towards a more peaceful world.
To learn more about the lost heart of listening check out my book Tears Heal
This article was originally published in the autumn 2016 Issue of Juno Magazine