The Lost Art of Listening

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend, family member, or colleague where you thought they heard you, but quickly discovered they weren’t listening? They either ask you a question that you had already answered, or they misunderstand or make assumptions of what they thought you said. A major concern of marriages today is lack of communication. Thanks to excessive distractions and screens always at the ready, attention spans are getting less and less, and relationships are getting shallow and often frustrating. With the rise of social media, open source forums, a narcissistic culture and moral fluidity, it seems that listening has become a lost art. It is easy to listen when we agree but not when we disagree. It is easy to listen when the listening is “easy” but inconvenient when somebody’s “skeletons” arrive. Friendships are shallow. Conversations are short. Lives are endangered and even lost with “close friends having no idea why”. It is essential, now more than ever, to ignite the lost art of listening. The remaining content will use a few unique sources to inspire the desire to listen and why this matters. 

Lessons From a Rabbit

As our son was growing up, we received kids books from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which was a great way to get new books on a monthly basis to read to him. Some he liked, others he didn’t. One in particular stuck with me. It was called “The Rabbit Listened” by Cori Doerrfeld. If you have not read this story, I highly recommend both for your kids, and for yourself. Because I personally am not a fan of spoilers without proper warning…here’s a quick disclaimer. 

*** SPOILERS ON THE PLOT OF THE STORY “THE RABBIT LISTENED” ***

You’ve been warned. “The Rabbit Listened” tells the story of Taylor, a young boy who is excited to build something special. He begins to build, but before long it gets knocked down by the flock of birds. Taylor is understandably upset. Taylor is met by several animals who notice his plight and want to help him fix it… They recommend talking, laughing, hiding, shouting, knocking down someone else’s, rebuilding, among others. But none of these interest Taylor. He silently refuses their help. The animals then leave one by one, upset that Taylor didn’t allow them to help. Eventually, Taylor is alone again until a rabbit comes. The rabbit silently comes next to Taylor and sits. No recommendations. No questions. Its presence was all it offered. And that was all that Taylor needed. As the rabbit went to hop away, Taylor broke his silence: “please stay with me”. And then the words “the rabbit listened”. Taylor talked, laughed, hid, shouted, talked about ruining someone else’s, and eventually about rebuilding again. Through it all…the rabbit listened. No replies. No judgements. No assumptions. No words at all. At the end of the story, Taylor was ready to rebuild again, a creation even better than the one he had built before. 

What a beautiful story of the difference between what we think people need and what they actually need. Too often when someone faces a crisis, the default is to try to fix. But the fixing is often suggested on our terms and in our timing. And if things do not happen on our terms and in our timing, we lose interest or get frustrated. Especially at the start of a crisis, or a trauma, the person is not looking for a fix. They may not have the words to say, or the desire to “build again” right away. All they may want at that moment is someone to listen. Not with the intent to reply or fix, but with the intent to understand. 

This can be especially true when working with trauma. People who suffer trauma often go through shock, repression, or even dissociation as a means of survival. This leads to them not being able to put into words what has happened to them, only remembering fragments, having nightmares or terrors that bring them right back to the trauma even if it was years ago, or shutting down/acting out. These symptoms are often treated through medication or other fixes without the necessary first step of listening on their terms. Trauma may take years to resolve and will come with setbacks or relapses, especially if vices were used to cope with the pain of the trauma. These can be frustrating to those on the outside, but ultimately the healing of the person has to be on their terms and in their timing. And oftentimes, it starts with a listening ear. Not with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand. Not with the intent to “fix”, but with the intent to learn. Larry King said it well: “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”

Listening to More Than Words

Have you ever played the game of “Telephone”? A group sits in a circle and the first person in the circle is given a word or phrase. They have to whisper the phrase in the next person’s ear and this continues clockwise until the last person in the circle hears the message. Rarely is the final word or phrase the same as the first. People often hear but do they really listen? Does it go in one ear and out the other, or does the person try to understand what is being said? Listening is more than hearing the words someone says. Take the word “fine” for example. Depending on the context, the demeanor, the inflection, and even the person speaking, the word “fine” can mean completely different, opposite things. Many spouses have gotten in trouble by misunderstanding the word “fine”. This is why text, social media, email and other digital mediums can be such troubling waters. 

A trained listener will listen to all parts of the message. The words, the inflection, the demeanor, the person, the context, the culture, and the emotion (or lack thereof). And they will listen until they understand. When someone experiences trauma, they must trust the person they are speaking with in order to confide in them. Their trust has been broken sometimes by people who were closest to them and should have been their protectors. The type of trauma can lead to fragments of the events that take months or years to piece together. It is crucial for the listener to allow the speaker to take all the time that they need, and not simply take out the pieces that seem important to them. 

In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk shares about one of his first experiences working in a facility that treated people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He would listen to the patients tell their stories in the evenings and then hear the doctors rounds in the mornings. 

During morning rounds the young doctors presented their cases to the supervisors, a ritual that the ward attendees were allowed to observe in silence. They rarely mentioned the stories like I’d heard. However, many later studies confirmed the relevance of these midnight confessions….I was often surprised by the dispassionate way patients’ symptoms were discussed and by how much time was spent on how to manage their suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behaviors, rather than understanding the possible causes of their despair and helplessness.

It can be easy to focus on what we want to hear, what we think they need to hear, or even fixing the symptoms. If this thought process isn’t checked and balanced, we can easily resort to canned responses that “usually work” and miss out on the uniqueness of the individual, including what they excel at, enjoy, or who they are.. Dr. Van Der Kolk later says: 

I was also struck by how little attention was paid to their accomplishments and aspirations; whom they cared for, loved or hated; what motivated and engaged them, what kept them stuck and what made them feel at peace – the ecology of their lives…I remember asking [my great teacher, Elvin Semrad] once: “What would you call this patient – schizophrenic or schizoaffective?” He paused and stroked his chin, apparently in deep thought. “I’d call him Michael McIntyre,” he replied. 

Whether in a professional setting, a friendship or guardian setting, it is often easier and “less messy” to treat the symptoms/behaviors of a person. It is also easy to see the things that are wrong with the person. It is vital to balance the bad in someone’s life with the good. Celebrate their passions and help them through their pains. Discover their pursuits. Give them something to live for. Help them see themselves for who they are meant to be, not focus on the things they are at that moment. Someone who has experienced trauma must often relearn that they are loved, they are valued, and that they have purpose. They need the time, empathy, and opportunity to do so. 

Recap

In James 1:19, we are told to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”. Dean Jackson says “listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” 

  • May we reclaim the lost art of listening. 
  • May we, like the rabbit, simply offer our presence and a listening ear. 
  • May we listen with the intent to understand not with the intent to answer or “fix”. Ultimately, it is not our job to “fix” anyone. God does the healing. 
  • It has to be up to the person we are with to want the healing and restoration. In their timing. May we exercise empathy, patience and love, no matter how long it takes. 

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