Walking Rabia at lakeside allows me the opportunity to meet a lot of people. A conversation with another dog-walker this week, reminded me of something that is often immediately noticeable about people. It has to do with whether they listen as well as talk.
We probably all know people who just talk, and even when they are not talking they are not listening. It’s written all over someone’s face if they are not listening, and all over their body too. There is very little eye contact and their head is moving, or conversely, their stare is fixed too intently on yours and their smile is a little too big for a little too long. Shifting, fidgeting, tapping, playing with something — all indications someone is not listening. You may think you are having a conversation but when you say something in response to whatever they said, the next thing they say has nothing to do with your response. It is as if you never said anything.
With some people not listening seems almost congenital. It may come from a family culture in which no one listened, or it could simply be a bad habit picked up along the way. But no one listens or listens well all of the time. Things happen in the course of a day and infuse us with angst, anxiety, anger, sorrow or even excitement. It is difficult to stop on a dime and put such things aside in order to listen.
A church I served once had its monthly board meeting on Monday after work. I can’t think of a worse time to have a meeting. People coming from work on a Monday are filled with unresolved emotions and circling thoughts. I initiated a practice of having hors d’oeuvres while doing a go-around in which people had a few minutes to talk about their day. Thirty to forty minutes later people were ready to focus on the business at hand and were far more effective and efficient as a result. (Another benefit was that we got to know one another better).
There was a brief article in the New York Times recently with a headline that caught my eye: “When Someone You Love Is Upset, Ask This One Question.” The author referenced a conversation with her sister who is a special education teacher. “’What do you do when a kid is emotionally overwhelmed?’ I asked. Many teachers at her school, she told me, ask students a simple question: ‘Do you want to be helped, heard or hugged?’” (Jancee Dunn, NYT 4/7/23).
Sometimes people don’t want to talk, a simple hug will make the space they need. But even when listening, what kind of listening do they want? Do they need for us to simply listen so that they feel heard, or for us to help with problem-solving — two radically different modes of listening. There are times all of us get stuck inside ourselves with the issues of life on spin-cycle. “Do you want to be helped, heard, or hugged,” could short-circuit the spinning and create space for us to become present with one another in a shared moment. Give it a try next time you feel someone is not truly listening, but then be ready to listen yourself.
Rabia isn’t a very good listener, unless I have a treat. Then she is all ears.