By Shae Hadden | Bio
How often have you caught yourself ‘tuning out’ when listening to a friend, family member or acquaintance? Or had someone point out that you aren’t really listening to them?
We have all, at one time or another, done so—whether consciously or not. I discovered a few years ago that I had developed a habit of trying hard to ‘push’ my perspective on some of my close personal relationships. When they didn’t listen, I withdrew and stopped listening to them. I don’t know a more effective way to seal oneself off from other people. Not only can it lead to boredom, but it can sound the death knell for love. And it is a lonely tragedy often replayed between parents and children—at any age.
I have witnessed the depths of this loneliness in speaking with elderly relatives. As they stubbornly hold fast to their life stories and fill me in on the seemingly endless details of their existence, I find myself bored and restless—suffering like a captive audience member. One day, perplexed, I decided to try an experiment. I chose to listen to one particularly repetitive older woman with compassion and sympathy—with my whole being—instead of with boredom, frustration and criticism. After a few days, she ran out of things to say. Then she began asking me questions. “Tell me more”, she urged. And eventually I was able to gently tell her what I had learned about the possibilities in listening.
“When we simply ask people questions automatically and then don’t really listen to their responses, they shrivel up in our presence. We can only get to know a portion of who that person is—even if it’s our child, our partner or our best friend—if that is how we are present with them in a conversation. Of course, we often have a lot to share with those closest to us and we may be used to asserting our perspective when we speak with them. But if we are not really willing to be quiet, to stop talking and to listen, we’ll never really know even one single person. In a way, I believe that listening is really the quintessential demonstration of love.”
My notions changed our relationship. She knows that, no matter what, I love and accept her as she is. And I know that I can listen to what she’s trying to communicate with her every word—her loneliness and isolation, her sadness and regrets, angers and frustrations. Each phone call is an exercise for me in learning to live in the present—in the moment of ‘now’—and to be quiet and listen as if time were endless and there is only this woman and I sharing who we are and how we are experiencing life.