December 20, 2014

Compassionate Listening Without Being a Doormat.


My daughters fought over me at bedtime last night, duking it out over who would get to cuddle with Mommy.

Trust me, all that being pulled in opposite directions wasn’t as flattering as you might think.

The worst moment was when my little one finally gave up.

“Fine,” she said in her best five-year-old sneer. “You don’t ever have to snuggle with me again. From now on, you can snuggle with her.” And then she turned her back to me.

Zing. Arrow through heart.

The only thing that stopped the tears that welled up in my eyes from actually spilling over was that I knew she didn’t mean it. I knew it was her hurt feelings talking. I knew she was pushing me away because what she actually wanted was for me to be closer.

Trouble is…the big heart in the little body doesn’t yet know how to express that.

Knowing that, I resisted the urge to fight back. Instead, I got quieter.

I tried to imagine what it’s like to be little and bruised and lacking the vocabulary to articulate complicated feelings.

I find sometimes that talking to grownups isn’t all that different. We feel wronged and may react emotionally in ways that we either don’t fully understand or can’t adequately vocalize—and so, by default, it comes out as the automatic fallback: anger.

A different part of our psyche takes over and we lose control over our sensibilities.

Get mad.

There are two lessons here (and, truth be told, probably many others if we were to give it more thought).

First, when we’re on the receiving end of hurtful words, it can be tempting to take them at face value and respond accordingly, to meet fire with fire. The bigger challenge—and, I think, the greater act of grace—is to try to find the compassion required to want to understand what’s really being said.

The compassion required to want to understand.

That’s no easy task. Going into “compassionate listening” mode with a friend, a child, a partner, a co-worker—particularly when we are perceived to be the root of the other person’s problem—might be one of the hardest things to do, but the payoff is worth it.

Here are three tips:

1. Tell your ego to take a backseat.

In relationships, where we practice the art of give and take, there are times when we get to talk and times when we must listen. And there are times when we need to remember that it’s not all about us. This is one of those times. So try to take your emotions out of the equation and instead practice listening as an objective therapist might—no blame, no judgment, just hearing the words with acceptance.

2. Know the complaint might not be the real issue.

Again, playing the role of counselor, encourage the conversation to go deeper. Resist the temptation to get defensive, ask gently probing questions designed to peel away the layers and get closer to the real hurt or frustration. Be willing to read between the lines.

3. Practice.

Just as you probably didn’t stick a handstand on your first try (or learn to meditate, or make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich), compassionate listening is an art that demands practice. As you attempt it again and again, the act that first seems foreign becomes familiar. It becomes easier over time. After a while, it’s a process that runs in the background.

Understandably, there are limits to our patience and restraint—we are not doormats, after all—but sometimes it’s our ability to truly listen with love that helps others achieve the breakthrough they so desperately need.

The flip side is when we’re the ones acting out. (Admit it, we all do it; even the most emotionally evolved among us can’t bask in equanimity at all times.) Our challenge then is to recognize when we’re operating from a place of hurt—when we’re thinking things in that hot moment that perhaps we don’t really mean—and do the hard work of reining it in.

Just as we may find the act of speaking with respect and intention to be a strenuous exercise, we’ve got to remember that the person we’re talking to may not be as practiced in the art of selfless listening as we might hope.

So, we remember that we’re all still practicing our stuff. All of us…the bigs and the littles.

We try to be judicious in our words, open in our ears and soft in our hearts.

We give second chances when they’re warranted.

And, when all else fails, we snuggle.


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Author: Becky Vollmer

Volunteer Editor: Kim Haas / Editor: 

Photo: Flickr/Juhan Sonin


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