I was thinking today about how people listen to each other and trying to characterize those ways in a scene I’m writing. I have a pair of characters who talk past one other — each hears the other in terms of their own filters — and so neither of them hears the other.
It made me realize how difficult this sort of “dance” can be to get onto the page. And that started me thinking about how people (don’t) listen.
There’s the person who listens in order to respond. I’m not sure this is truly hearing the other person so much as waiting for one’s chance to give advice, be right, or otherwise attempt to control the conversation. It’s certainly not compassionate. This is the situation with my two characters, who had a one-night stand and immediately regretted it, characters who are oil and water, characters who could never be together in any kind of real relationship.
There’s the person who listens because she believes she’s being supportive, but whose interpretation of what was said is based on her own filters. This one is difficult because I suspect most conversations are carried out like this. I’ll give an example:
A few years ago, Hurricane Ike blew through my neighborhood. We live in a Mandatory Evacuation area, so He and I packed up the cats and our electronics and headed into town to stay with a lovely elderly gentleman who’d offered us shelter. (The arrangement was of mutual benefit; he needed someone to stay with him as he was pushing 90 at the time and his family already had its hands full.) As Hurricane Ike came through, He and I had several conversations about our feelings around our little house — how if it was destroyed, we would start over. We talked for a long time about how we’d reconstruct it, and I actually started feeling a little excitement at the prospect. It sounds odd, but it was true.
When we found out from a friend that our house had weathered the hurricane with only a couple of feet of water in the storage area on the ground floor, I felt neither relief nor disappointment. The house was standing, we wouldn’t have to rebuild, and all was well with me. Had the house been swept away, I would have simply dealt with finding a temporary home and starting to rebuild, but those things were all just a matter of course. There was nothing extraordinary about either the house standing or house falling.
Our gentle host, however, was quite sure that I was extremely relieved and felt most blessed to still have the house. No amount of my indicating that it would have been okay to lose it seemed to dissuade him from his conviction that I must be extraordinarily happy to have the house still standing.
So while he might have heard the words I spoke, he heard them through the filter of his own feelings without considering that my feelings — my reality — might be different.
I think this is probably the most common way that we don’t hear each other. You tell me something important to you, I have an emotional reaction (desire, aversion), and I assume that you must feel the way I do. I then place my reaction onto you and talk to you as if you share my reaction.
No wonder so many of us don’t feel heard.
There’s the person who listens completely passively, without giving any verbal or visual cues of their thoughts. Granted, this is very, very rare — we are social creatures, after all — but I have known of such people, and they tend not to be approached for confidences. Much of what I do when I want someone to hear me is for that other person to validate my feelings, to hear my story of the events and commiserate with me, to tell me that of course I’m justified in my response to the situation. The person who doesn’t provide any response, so I feel that “nothing comes back,” might be deeply listening, and yet my sense is that my words aren’t going in. I want my listener not to feel what they would feel in the same situation, but to feel what I feel.
Then there’s the just as rare person who doesn’t merely listen, but asks questions because she doesn’t assume anything or want to fix the situation. Rather, she wants to better understand how the speaker feels as completely as possible. This is engaged listening at its best, and seems to be a rare phenomenon. It requires the listener to be aware of her own agenda so that she’s able to put it to one side and genuinely hear the speaker. She assumes nothing. If she doesn’t understand a fact, she asks a clarifying question. If she isn’t clear about what the speaker is feeling, she probes gently. And then, perhaps most importantly, she asks what the speaker wants from her — just to listen, or to share her own experience, or something else. Then, she honors that request.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with someone who listened in this way. It was over dinner, it was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, He was in Europe and I was alone for the holiday. My friend asked such gentle questions that I couldn’t help but say how I felt about the topic at hand; she would pause after I spoke, as if to consider what I’d said, and then ask a question, or tell me something of her own experience with no agenda of changing me or trying to get me to see something differently.
Our conversation ended up wide-ranging and in some areas, very deep. When we parted ways at the end of the evening, while there were no hugs or other gestures of affection, I returned home feeling as if I’d been deeply blessed in having been heard.
It was the kind of conversation I want some of my characters to have, perhaps when they’ve grown enough to set themselves aside and genuinely be there for each other.
Until then, the study of how we aren’t there for each other continues to fascinate me….