September 16, 2011

The Delicate Art of Listening

I have heard it said, that if everyone around were to throw their problems in a big pile with the option of trading for someone else's, most people, after thinking about it, would pull their own problems back out again. I would guess the person from whom this quote came meant that, like a pair of worn-in shoes, our own difficulties and challenges are tailor made for us and best worn by ourselves. I feel that way sometimes, especially after I hear about some of the struggles other people are dealing with.

When we are wrapped up in our own world which, arguably, with the invention of earbuds and smartphones, happens with increasing regularity, it can be tempting to believe so one else suffers like we do, no one else has struggles like ours. During one of my recent visits home, my dad said he had heard some stories lately from people he knew, about what they had been through in their lives, and he wondered how they could carry on. If it is true that we are each only given what we can handle, then I would argue that many people must be far stronger than I. When I stop and think about it, I have it good.

Some days I get a lot of things done, and those are my 'productive' days. On those days, I take care of business, go for a run, cook my family a great meal, get some work done around the house. Other days, I write, go for a walk to clear my head, find a treasure at the thrift shop. Those are good days, too. Other days, I don't know if I'm coming or going. Nothing seems to get accomplished and my ears ache. Those are the days I need to listen to my body and have a nap after lunch, or go to bed early with a good book and try again tomorrow. Some days I spend socially, whether by working with people or by meeting friends for coffee. I have several good friends here and I love to visit with them. Generally, we take turns talking and spend the visit catching up, but sometimes I have to sit and listen because someone just needs my ear.

One of my old friends' mother was a teacher. She frequently told me I would make a good teacher, and when I asked her why, she said it was because I was a good listener. That surprised me because, until then, I had not considered myself a good listener, and I always believed the job of a teacher was to stand up in front of a classroom and lecture. As I later learned, that was a small part of effective teaching. A good teacher listens to the responses of her students and knows how to proceed with the lesson. She must make adjustments for each child, and make allowances for her student's situation in life and temperament. I learned so much from teaching my own children to read, for example. I learned intimately how each of their minds processed information and put different elements together from the give and take of our lessons. When I was a child in school I often lamented how long it took me to 'get' a concept, particularly in science and math, and sometimes I had to read story problems over and over to focus enough to understand them. Reading is a type of listening, and little did I know I was learning the art of listening with every challenging concept.

I don't think everyone is as attached to listening as an artform. I remember driving with my husband, shortly after we were married, up the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse. It was the 50th anniversary of the world- famous highway and the frost heaved asphalt, which was always under construction in summer, was bumper to bumper with recreational vehicles. At one construction road block, we had to wait for quite a long time. We got out of the car to stretch our legs as did the couple in the R.V. in front of us, which was tattooed with stickers from the 50 States. The couple decided to chat with us and began the conversation with a question, which was followed by another question, which was followed by another. The couple never waited for our answer before they asked the next question, merely said "uh huh?" and looked around impatiently before asking another question they didn't really want an answer to. To be a good listener, you have to like the sound of other people's voices almost as much as the sound of your own.

Yesterday afternoon, after spending a good chunk of my day listening to the tearful, very personal struggles of a couple of friends, I had a half hour to myself before my youngest daughter would be home from school. My eldest, home from a trip abroad and searching for his next opportunity in life, was even out with a friend. I made some tea and sat down to enjoy it. I thought how honoured I was to have the trust and friendship of those two women, and even though I had produced little to show for my day - no housework except some sheets washed and piled in a heap on a chair - I felt good. I felt good about myself as a friend - I wasn't always so compassionate - and I felt happy that my own struggles were not weighing me down enough to close my ears to others' troubles. I knew inevitably they would again sometime in the future, and then it would be my turn to talk. I pondered my youngest's recent struggles with adjusting to the back-to-school routine and was glad I was able to listen well to her and respond accordingly. She is settling in nicely now.

I sat back with my tea to enjoy my quiet half hour. After about three minutes of blissful silence, the front door opened and my eldest son leapt up the stairs, two at a time. I felt myself inhale sharply.

"How was your day, Mom?"

 I exhaled slowly and resumed sipping my tea. "Good, how was yours?"

And so it goes.


  1. I thought I'd "get in" reading a blog post before my children come home, which will be in ten minutes - and decided to visit you, having no idea what I'd find.

    Glad I did, for I relate so well to what you've said. Your third paragraph describes my life - everyday is different.

    Before coming to the post, I was having an hour nap, something that I rarely do, but felt that I must get some rest before going horseback riding with my daughter. I REALLY didn't feel like it today; moaning, "I just want to sleep."

    After reading your post, I somewhat snapped out of it. I was whining about something that I know will be fun once I get there. I always do.

    I don't think I'm making my point very well (still drowsy), but anyway, glad I read what you've said.

    And glad you recognize the value of doing, not doing, and listening. :)

  2. Anita: Thanks for your great, though drowsy comment :) I'm very glad you came by to visit. Enjoy the horseback riding!

  3. You sound like the best kind of pal. Those friends listen and may ask questions but are rarely judgemental. Those are the people who hold confidences, forever trusted, forever remembered and where what is given is returned -to the best of your ability.

  4. listening is truly an art form...and truly listening, not thinking of what you are going to say or how you are going to fix the persons problems...we all need people like that...and glad your ears got a little break there...smiles. happy saturday!

  5. You seem to be going through something of a personal mistral. See .
    It might be time for you to visit San Fransisco. Well rather the Napa valley for the wine harvest. Bringing the man, you might find him useful. But leaving the sprigs to fend for themselves for a few days. And it cannot be that expensive this time of year. And if himself has issues tell him to call it research.

  6. Are the windows getting on your nerves when the light slants through. If so then things are more urgent than I thought. Book a trip to anyplace this very week.

  7. This is a timely and sincerely felt post, Rebecca. In the last week I have encountered three people with the most tragic and heartbreaking events they have had to deal with, and I have been filled with compassion, admiration, and occasional anger (on their behalf). It seems sometimes that the loads some people are given to carry are beyond belief.

    But in turn, I am also filled with gratitude, for my truly blessed life, and all that I have.

    Over on Milkmoon you told me that as you read my last post " I felt as though I were reading words I knew but hadn't expressed." Well you have done the same for me here.

    Thank you for this, Rebecca.

    Ciara x

  8. OH wow...deep sigh. Listening is such an IMPORTANT THING!! Bravo to you Rebecca for taking the time to do so! You bless many I am SURE!

    And SO it goes!!!

  9. Hi Rebecca
    I've just followed a link after reading the post on 'Crivens Jings and Help Ma Boab'where Al recommends 5 other bloggers. And, I'm so glad I did!
    I have literally just finished writing a post for my own blog about my work with Samaritans (a listening charity for people in distress) and I can so relate to everything you've written here.
    Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give - it communicates support at a level deeper than words!
    I'm going to join your blog and look forward to following in the future!

  10. You are even a good blog listener. I am happy that you were my first follower. :) I suppose I should give Ciara up there ^ a little credit too, since she is how we met.

    I'm glad to be back and all caught up now. I missed it here.


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