The other day I was listening to a radio program where a woman outlined the horrendous things she had endured throughout her life, and how at age 52 she experienced a revelation. The details are irrelevant. But what she said was “If only I’d known that, my life would have been different.” Her voice caught in the emotion of it all. The radio host acknowledged her pain by making a non-verbal sound that seemed to express understanding. The host did not try to comfort her, did not offer advice; she let the woman experience and direct her own story.
Listening is a critical skill, that I am probably less skilled at than most. In my defense, I grew up with a family with a different listening strategy. Interrupting with more info supports the story, presenting a solution to a problem when one isn’t requested can save time and help redirect us from bad outcomes, (we are after all problem solvers), it is a sign of solidarity to share something similar that happened to us, butting in with a modestly relevant comment the moment it starts to pierce our brain and shift from right to left hemisphere (responsible for speech and language) is the only way to be sure we won’t forget to say it later. And that old saying, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”, just encouraged us to scan the area for tidbits of everyone’s convos, instead of listening to only one. Our dinner table was always noisy.
During the midst of the Love/Hate pandemonium that was Trump, I attended a group that promised to help participants learn how to speak with, not at, people who have polarizing opinions. I had my personal epiphany there. I am a feature writer/journalist who was not a good listener when experiencing the world for myself. I listened just enough to start formulating a response that might prove just how in tune to the conversation I was. I was looking to win arguments, not listening to understand. I was hijacking someone’s story by injecting my own. Yikes, that one hurt, I always thought I was building connection through relatability. I asked questions before knowing whether the answer was forthcoming anyway. I was trying to prove things and solve things when no one asked me to.
I called my sister when I got home and asked if she knew that we as a family had listening problems. She laughed dismissively and said, “that’s just our way” and started talking about some calamity in her day.
I continue to try to be a better listener, and bite my tongue to keep it from waggling sometimes. My mind that travels at the speed of light but never in a straight line, is being trained to continue listening throughout each diversion. Thoughts of “Oh, I really like her necklace”, “What are we having for dinner”, “If I had to have one meal for the rest of my life what would it be”, “I should get a picture of the sky it’s a perfect shade of blue”, “Are there going to be snacks”, “Is that stranger’s coffee mug too close to the edge of the table”, or “Oh look a chicken” is being traded for “If you’ll just stay focused you can have a cupcake when we get home” but that’s only until “Listen and learn” is enough of a motivator to quell my mental chaos and give the speaker the attention deserved and desired.
I’m not great at it yet, but I recognize my fault. I can’t help wondering what I’d have learned if I’d been listening all along.
So I am going to tell you my response to that poor woman. I was hollering at the radio “Your life wouldn’t have been different, your past would have been different, you still have your life to live how you want. She didn’t hear me, obviously, so I pulled over to call the show and give her hope with that profound message that I really felt she needed to hear. The god of listening must have had his ear to the ground. The show ended without taking additional call ins. So I am stuck alone with my message of hope for a woman I will never encounter. My heart still feels my idea is a good one, if not all that spectacularly novel. Someone closer to her may convey the same sentiment at a point when she asks for it because she’s ready to receive it. I want to pass on the message that the time between first and last breaths, can always offer possibility and hope.
(c) Alison Colby-Campbell