On Listening

When it happens, I can always feel it physically: an internal shifting, a sense of shutting down. At a cocktail party, when someone asks me about myself, then glances around the room as I begin to answer. When I’m having lunch with a friend who keeps checking Facebook at the table. During a phone conversation, when I finish a story and the pause on the other end of the line is a tad too long and the person’s voice sounds like they are returning from somewhere else far away.

In all of these moments, I know that I am speaking, but am not being heard. The other person is not listening to me at all. And I always feel myself shrink. I quickly summarize whatever story I was telling. I curtail my remarks. Any chance at opening up to this person and being vulnerable in this moment is gone.

All of us can remember times when we have felt not listened to. And, to be fair, all of us have been that distracted person as well, experiencing the vertigo that comes when a conversation ends and you realize you have zero recollection of what was just said.

But also, I hope every one of us can remember a time when we felt wholly listened to. Because of this, we felt connected, cared for, understood.

As Ed Cunningham said, “Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.”

And not only friends — sometimes acquaintances, or even strangers, are the listeners we need the most. When my dear friend Céline died, I was fortunate to have many friends and family members who lovingly and generously listened to me. I particularly remember crying on the phone with my parents and brother the morning we learned the news, and also the way Greg held my hand and listened during the weekend of Céline’s funeral and celebration of life. My husband unfortunately never got to meet Céline, but his smile when he listens to my stories about her makes it seem as if he knew her. The same is true for my friend Dana, who met me for lunch on the anniversary of Céline’s death. And I don’t know what I would do without my long conversations with my bestie Holly as we continue to navigate through grief together.

And also, when I think of listening, I think of an acquaintance I have named Cynthia who is a hospital chaplain and volunteers through my church’s grief group. When Céline passed away, Cynthia invited me to coffee. I remember driving to the coffeeshop, feeling numb, thinking that I didn’t have much to say. Yet when I sat down with Cynthia, and she asked, “How are you doing?” with so much concern in her voice, all of these words and emotions came spilling out of me. I was trying to “be strong” in front of all the people I loved in my life, who knew me and worried about me, to show them that I was doing okay. With Cynthia, I didn’t have to prove anything. In the wake of my life’s biggest loss, that experience of being deeply listened to by a near-stranger meant so much.

In one of my favorite songs — “Quiet” by Jason Mraz— the lyrics of the chorus go like this:

I will hold your hand

And watch the world spin madly round

This life we’re in

Everything goes quiet

When it’s you I’m with

These words make me think of sanctuary. Often, in everyday life — and especially when it feels like the world is spinning madly around us — what we yearn for is simply someone to hold our hand and sit quietly beside us. Listening creates sanctuary for each other.

Karl Menniger says, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

Let us be brave enough to listen — to create, unfold, expand. To be there for each other. To offer grace and understanding. To listen, really listen, truly and deeply and gratefully. Because when show up in this way for each other, we are also showing up for ourselves. In strengthening these authentic relationships, we are strengthening the best part of ourselves. In learning to listen to others, we practice listening to those quiet, wise voices within us.

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