Listening Archives

The perils of “active listening”

Are you familiar with the “active listening” concept?

It’s where you listen to what your spouse says, repeat back what your spouse said in your own words, and then try to show you understand why your spouse feels angry at you or whatever.


In the book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, which is a “myth-busting response to the self-help movement, with tips and tricks to improve your life that come straight from the scientific community,” author Richard Wiseman pretty much dismisses active listening as hooey.

In the 1990s John Gottman (a world renowned expert on marital stability) did an elaborate study on active listening at the University of Washington.

He took 100 newlywed couples and videotaped them as they chatted for 15 minutes about a topic of ongoing disagreement. He followed these couples for six years.

It turns out hardly anyone engaged in active listening and it’s too difficult for most people to perform the “emotional gynmastics” required for active listening. They were shocked to discover that active listening was unrelated to marital bliss.

They went on to study tapes from another study that tracked married couples for 13 years and reached the same conclusions about active listening.

So if active listening doesn’t work, what does?

The Gottman study reveals that people in long term, happy heterosexual relationships exhibit a very particular pattern in times of conflict:

The female usually raises a difficult issue, presents an analysis of the problem, and suggests some possible solutions.

Males who are able to accept some of these ideas, and therefore show a sense of power sharing with their partner, are far more likely to maintain a successful relationship.

In contrast, couples in which the males react by stonewalling, or even showing contempt, are especially likely to break up.

So the Vicki the Biker approach to conflict really is the right one! Woo hoo! :)


Questions, Questions

When I was a teenager my dad set a tape recorder on top of the bar in my grandparents’ basement bar (remember when homes built in the 1950s and 1960s often had basement bars? Ah the good old days…).

He pushed record and interviewed his father – my grandfather – for about a half hour. Then he flipped the tape over and interviewed my grandmother.

They told stories I had mostly heard before but I found it compelling to watch this dialogue in a formal interview format.

It was even more interesting when my father had to hit pause because my grandfather started crying when he talked about how much his wedding day meant to him.

StoryCorps is an organization dedicated to helping people conduct interviews like these. The interviews last 40 minutes and StoryCorps keeps a copy for history and the participants get a copy.

I’m reading their book Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project right now, which is a collection of some of these stories. Each story is only a few pages and are interviews between husbands and wives, siblings, adopted child and biological parent, friends, etc.

StoryCorps believes that everyone has a story to tell and provides a list of their most popular questions. You could use these questions on your own to interview someone…or just use them to reflect on your own life:

* What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?

* Who was the most important person in your life?

* Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did this person teach you?

* Who has been the kindest to you in your life?

* What are the most important lessons you’ve learned?

* What is your earliest memory?

* What is your favorite memory of me?

* If you could hold on to one memory from your life for eternity, what would that be?

* Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to pass along to me?

* What are you proudest of in your life?

* How would you lie to be remembered?

* Do you have any regrets?

* What does your future hold?

* Is there anything that you’ve never told me but want to tell me now?

* Is there something about me that you’ve always wanted to know but have never asked?

* Turn the tables: This is your chance to tell the person you’re interviewing what you’ve learned from him or her and what that person means to you.

I confess I feel tired reading that list, as I’ve kind of had question fatigue the past several years, what with young children asking me questions all the time, having to ask clients questions for projects, etc.

But then I recall how eagerly I and my mother read through a diary of my aunt Lois’s, shortly after her death – a diary that asked a bunch of questions like these as well as more mundane ones about her childhood, and how even my mother learned things she never knew before about her sister after reading all her answers.

As Einstein said, the important thing is to not stop asking questions (but don’t tell my 8-year-old he said that :D).


How to NOT listen to a talkaholic

I know I’ve gone on before about the importance of listening. Well, when it comes to talkaholics, scratch all that.

I’m kidding, a little, but in the presence of a talkaholic, listening isn’t really an option anyway. Conversation management is the best you can do.

Conversation management skills are a must when dealing with a talkaholic. Otherwise you’ll get so blown away and overwhelmed by their chatter that your life force completely drains out of you.

Ideally, conversation management skills will help talkaholics curb their habit of incessantly engaging in incessant chatter with much incessance.

Although all talkaholics are extroverts, not all extroverts are talkaholics. Far from it. Many of the best conversationalists I’ve known are extroverts – capable of back and forth conversation where each person speaks as much as the other and ask interesting, non-intrusive, questions.

And before you think I’m letting introverts off the hook here, I’m not.

Introverts aren’t talkaholics but some of them have a tendency to indulge in monologues. That is, they will go on for several minutes in excruciating detail about an area of expertise or topic of interest only to them and not their conversation partner.

While monologuing, they remain oblivious to verbal and non-verbal cues of boredom from their conversation partner, just like talkaholics do.

So the following conversation management skills apply when dealing with them too. Note how this type of listening is pretty much the opposite of how you would listen to someone in a normal conversation:

1. Interrupt. Often. Constantly. I confess that this doesn’t always work for me like I wish it would.

2. Ask intrusive questions. Maybe your rudeness will scare them away.

3. Selfishly redirect the conversation. I use this one the most. If I must endure chatter, it might as well be about something I’m at least vaguely interested in.

An example: a year or so ago, an introvert went on for about 15 minutes about the minutiae of his job. My total silence and lack of encouraging facial expressions and gestures should have given him an indication that he was being boring. Nope.

Finally, I said, “Unfortunately this is a topic I know absolutely nothing about and I have nothing to contribute to this conversation. So how about those Cubs!” Remarkably, he got the hint.

4. Use hand signals when necessary. I like this one, from the movie Devil Wears Prada:

Now for some speculation as to what causes talkaholism.

Open wounds don’t tend to heal…they fester. And one of the ways they can fester is through talkaholism.

So compassion is warranted.

Yet at the same time conversation is supposed be a two way street.  So when you find yourself on the wrong end of a one way street in a conversation with a talkaholic, it’s OK to speak up.

It’s very important to treat other’s people’s time  like the precious commodity it is and not selfishly consume it.

Or, in other words, all of us, talkaholics and non-talkaholics alike, need to STFU a lot more.


Hospitality as a healing power

How can wounds become a source of healing?

Henri Nouwen address this at the end of his book The Wounded Healer and makes a case for hospitality as a healing power.

My knee jerk reaction to the word “hospitality” is CHAOS (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome). I always think my house is too small, too cluttered, has too many children in it making too much noise in order to extend proper hospitality.

Fortunately Nouwen views hospitality as more than just cleaning up your house and having people over. Hospitality requires three things:

1. The ability to pay attention without intention. That is, focusing and listening to someone without being distracted by your own worries and concerns or imposing on the other person your “intrusive curiosity.”

2.Withdrawing into yourself even while you’re with another person:

Paradoxically, by withdrawing into ourselves, not out of self-pity but out of humility, we create the space for another to be himself and to come to us on his own terms.

3. Taking away the false illusion that wholeness can be given by one to another.

Many people in this life suffer because they are anxiously searching for the man or woman, the event or encounter, which will take their loneliness away.

But when they enter a house with real hospitality, they soon see that their own wounds must be understood not as sources of despair and bitterness, but as signs that they have to travel on in obedience to the calling sounds of their own wounds.

One last Nouwen quote:

A shared pain is no longer paralyzing but mobilizing, when understood as a way to liberation. When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.

It’s kind of funny that what we traditionally think of as hospitality is often the very opposite these three things.

But I suppose that still won’t keep me from suffering from CHAOS from time to time.


If I was in charge of meetings…

There’s no avoiding meetings completely, even if you don’t work at a corporation.

I spent two evenings this week at meetings and I was reminded yet again how inefficient meetings always are.

Meetings are among the worst forms of communication because they don’t encourage true listening or actual conversation.

This classic “ad” would apply to most meetings:

If I was in charge of meetings, here’s what I would implement (many of these ideas come from Seth Godin, with several of my own thrown in):

*No chairs. If everyone stands, the meeting will go much quicker and people will be alert.

*No food.

*Each presenter only gets 4 minutes, tops. Use a timer. The average person speaks at a rate of 150 words per minute so in 4 minutes that’s 600 words. That’s plenty. Make sure to include what you think the next action step is. Give a written summary of your presentation to the meeting leader at the end.

*If someone arrives more than two minutes later than the last person to arrive, they have to put $10 in the coffee fund.

*The organizer of the meeting has to email a summary of the meeting to the attendees right after the end of the meeting, along with the next action steps.

*If you find you aren’t adding value to the meeting, leave. You can read the summary later. I’ve been exercising this option more and more often (of course I never get email summaries). I left one of the meetings early this week because it dragged on so long I was in danger of missing an important Lost episode. No meeting is worth that.

*No “what does everyone think?” questions. Save those for email.

*No “We can’t possibly decide on this tonight” statements. Meetings should have a specific agenda and end with a decision. If that’s not possible, then you’re not ready for a meeting and need more preparation.

*If it’s an informational meeting, make sure the Q & A at the end is highly focused. Nothing drains the energy out of a meeting more than a Q & A session that is open ended and where people are allowed to hold forth at length without a time limit. Much better to end the meeting decisively.

Yeah, I’d be highly delusional if I thought that meetings would ever resemble something like this. But just imagine if every meeting adopted even ONE of these tactics. There might be less notes like these afterwards:


A different way to look at the Sabbath

Seeing as how today is Sunday, a day many consider to be a day of rest, here’s an interesting quote from Wayne Muller about how the Sabbath isn’t merely a day… YOU can be the Sabbath for someone:

“At our best, we become Sabbath for one another. We are the emptiness, the day of rest. We become space, that our loved ones, the lost and sorrowful, may find rest in us. Not fixing, not harming, not acting. Quietly empty, we become Sabbath where the sorrows of the world are safely poured and gently dissolve into the unfathomable immensity of rest and silence.”


It’s not how many people you know but how many kinds

In this age of social media it’s easy to get caught up in how many “friends” and “followers” you have.

But while reading June Singer’s Boundaries of the Soul: The practice of Jung’s psychology, I noticed she said the best way way for psychology to have a positive impact on our life outside of the analyst’s office is to interact with many different kinds of people in our everyday lives.

She goes so far as to say that to have an impact on society we shouldn’t first turn to experts. Instead we need to listen to the less vocal parts of society…

“These people watch and listen, they observe and reflect. They know far more than most people give them credit for. It is time to ask them what they see, what they need and what they can contribute.”

She listed 7 types of people we should listen to:

1. The ordinary person just struggling to get along in the world.

2. The elderly in your community. They have watched history unfold. Those that continue to have a lively interest in the world have much to teach younger people.

3. Indigenous people. She mentions people who are native to a country but I also like to think of indigenous people as people who have lived in a neighborhood or community for a very long time.

For example, in my neighborhood are two sets of neighbors who have lived in this neighborhood since the 1960s.  They always have a lot of information and stories to share.

4. Recent immigrants. They help us remember the importance of retaining our uniqueness while blending in with the whole of society.

5. Wisdom teachers. Religious leaders, ministers, etc.

6. Gay and lesbian people. She says we can learn from them because they tend to be creative and because they can teach us how members of a community can support one another through difficult times.

7. Families who live in rural settings. We should be interested in what they are learning about life and their natural surroundings.

She goes on to say that she approves of how psychology has also made inroads in the medical community and that it is generally accepted today that diseases have both physical and psychological components.

Of course this made me think of the work of Dr. Rachel Remen and her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. It became apparent while reading Boundaries of the Soul that Jung’s psychology has obviously had some influence on Dr. Remen.

Both Jung and Remen seem to share the same optimism and belief that wholeness and healing are possible. June Singer’s Boundaries of the Soul is considered the classic introductory book about Jung so that’s the book to read if you have any interest in learning more about Jung.

At any rate, it reinforces all the more how if we just listen to each other, including people who are different from us, and share empathy and stories, we won’t need to turn to the “experts” as often.


Questions I Hate

“How do you find the time?”

I was reminded yesterday how much I dislike that question. It makes me want to say, “How do you find the time to ask dumb questions?”

Actually, I dislike all questions that are not legitimate inquiries but are instead passive-aggressive ways of saying something critical.

For example, a question like “how do you find the time to write a blog post every day?” often really means, “blogging seems like a waste of time.”

Or, “how do you find the time to exercise?” means, “I feel inadequate because you exercise and I don’t.”

Or, “Is your daughter reading yet?” sometimes means, “Wow, I can’t believe your daughter isn’t reading yet, you sure are a slacker parent.”

Even an innocent, “how’s business these days?” can mean, “I wish you’d get a real job already,” depending on who’s asking.

Before I ask a question I try to make sure I’m asking because I don’t know the answer and am genuinely curious, although I’m sure I fall into the passive-aggressive trap too often myself.


The sound of silence is… conversation?

This happy gift was given to me in order to conceal the undoubted fact that I am the most silent man of my day.
Silence hid in silence is suspicious, arouses mistrust, it is just as though one were to betray something, at least betrayed that one was keeping silence. But silence concealed by a decided talent for conversation – as true as ever I live – that is silence
Kierkegaard said the gift of conversation – of being able to talk with anyone – is genius:
This happy gift was given to me in order to conceal the undoubted fact that I am the most silent man of my day.
Silence hid in silence is suspicious, arouses mistrust, it is just as though one were to betray something, at least betrayed that one was keeping silence. But silence concealed by a decided talent for conversation – as true as ever I live – that is silence.
It’s interesting that he says a talent for conversation is true silence. The best silence isn’t necessarily the absence of words.
When using the tarot cards my friend was able to pause and stare at the cards in silence from time to time. This created an atmosphere where people felt more comfortable trusting him..

Kierkegaard said the gift of conversation – of being able to talk with anyone – is genius.

He goes even further and says that conversation is actually a form of silence:

This happy gift was given to me in order to conceal the undoubted fact that I am the most silent man of my day.

Silence hid in silence is suspicious, arouses mistrust, it is just as though one were to betray something, at least betrayed that one was keeping silence.

But silence concealed by a decided talent for conversation – as true as ever I live – that is silence.

I have to admit that I had never considered conversation as a form of silence before.

But the more I think about it, the more I see his point.

Someone with a talent for conversation is good at active listening.

This means no monologues.

And no sitting and marinating in one’s own thoughts – after all, thoughts are often as noisy as one’s spoken words.

While in the flow of a good conversation, your focus is on the other person and the ideas under discussion.

This type of silence is as meditative and nourishing as when one is alone and silent.

Also, although there’s nothing like the comfortable silence between people who are close to each other, where there isn’t pressure to speak, I reluctantly admit that these comfortable silences aren’t possible with most of the people we converse with.

Even though I appreciate silence, I can recall times when I’ve been uncomfortable in the presence of a silent acquaintance. No matter how many questions I asked or how much interest I showed in the person, it was impossible to prime the pump due to their deep introversion.

This isn’t to say that an extrovert incessantly engaging in incessant chatter with much incessance is a superior conversation partner to the silent introvert.

Conversation is a skill that has to be learned, regardless of one’s temperament. Extroverts aren’t necessarily more skilled at conversation than introverts.

Fortunately, it’s never too late to develop the genius talent of conversation. If you want some practical tips about this, check out this Psychology Today article.


The ultimate universal health care plan

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen talks about a support group for parents and their diabetic teens and how effective it was. She saw that their life experience was more valuable than any professional medical credential.

She also says:

I do not think that we will be able to attain health for all until we realize that we are all providers of each other’s heath, and value what we have to offer each other as much as what experts have to offer us.

She goes on to say:

We are all wounded healers of each other. We have earned the wisdom to heal and the ability to care.”

This healing often occurs in the form of listening and storytelling.

Imagine…universal health care where wounded healers are the practitioners.

I don’t suppose congress is giving this much consideration as they debate the health care bill.