Monday, June 7, 2010

Shut Up And Listen

It's amazing how denial can keep us believing such wonderful things about ourselves--things that aren't quite true. But just like holding your thumb in front of the moon can make it appear to not be there, it is still there. And eventually we have to face it or suffer the consequences.

I, personally, can go along for ages sustaining these self-made eclipses. One recent humbling awakening is that I'm not the good listener I thought I was.

Unbeknownst to me, listening takes a whole lot more than sitting or standing still and pointing myself at somebody. My mind has to do the same thing--and my mouth has to have a cork in it.

When I'm thinking my own thoughts while someone is talking, I don't hear what they're saying. Likewise, when someone isn't listening to me, so I overcompensate by running at the mouth--in spite of their yawns, their looking away, their eyes glazing over to a dull and stupid stare--that also means I'm not listening.

Several months ago, at a benefit tea I attend each year for an animal protection society, I did both of these things with a woman in the check-in line who had decided to convince me to adopt a pet.

I understood her motivation. If people don't adopt the animals that others abandon to shelters, many are put down or, as in the case of this no-kill shelter, live their lives in a sanctuary. That's why my husband and I adopted seven children over the years: four kitties, two birds and one lovably neurotic mixed-breed dog.

Unfortunately, I ended up with asthma and too many trips to the emergency room because of it. And so, when the last of our babies passed away, we didn't adopt another one, even though I wanted to--still want to--because, evidently, the only animals I'm not allergic to are humans and fish.

But that didn't stop this woman from attempting to change my mind by ticking off a list of hairless, non-allergic breeds and more--even though I explained that I was allergic to those sweeties, too. (It's the saliva and skin oil, not the fur, that appear to be the culprits for me.)

I wish I had peacefully listened to her. Told her I'd consider her suggestions. But because I still feel ashamed for choosing my own health over a pet in need, I tried to justify myself. I talked so much that I was oblivious to her backing away from me and, eventually, disappearing altogether when I turned to the person at the check-in table.

Granted, my problem started with justifying myself--something I don't need to do. But it became more exacerbated when I didn't listen to her body language, and the consequences were definitely embarrassing. Unfortunately, not embarrassing enough to change my behavior.

It wasn't until I witnessed myself not listening to a friend--while our other companion intently listened to her--that I was finally shamed into facing it.

My friend was talking about her childhood, which reminded me of something in mine. And since I was too busy chewing on my own memory, I totally missed my friend's. And if that weren't enough, I then uncorked this dazzling memory like the kitty that dumps her catch on the ground to show what a cool thing she's found.

My friend, the gentle spirit that she is, listened to my babbling like a trooper. She showed no signs of my stomping on her or shutting her up. If it weren't for the other friend with us, I'd probably still be unaware of what I did.

"Not all children have a strong sense of self," the other friend said, looking at the gentle spirit. And then she added, "That must have made you feel very sad and lonely."

In that moment, as tears welled up in my gentle friend's eyes, I witnessed the magic of affirmation. I saw how one person listening to what another person verbally and nonverbally says, and then repeating it back to her, can help her feel acknowledged and understood.

So I have decided it's time I worked on removing this shortcoming, and a good place to start is probably with the advice that someone once gave me, but I didn't listen to:

"Never miss an opportunity to say nothing."

QUESTION: How well do you listen to others?

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