The art of listening

I know who I want to be. I can see her now:

She’s calm and loving. Her arms encircle her family with care and protection. She endows her little ones with the strength and confidence they need to try the world out for themselves. She has boundless patience, never loses her temper, is unbuffeted by external storms, speaks only after considering the import and effect of what she has to say…

And then I step outside of myself and look at me. This morning I shouted “Stop shouting!” at my four year-old. I also found myself uttering an oft-repeated directive of my mother’s from my youth: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say to each other, don’t say anything at all!” The bickering was getting out of hand and I was trying to finish getting breakfast whilst making packed lunches and shovel porridge into a rather unreceptive baby before it went cold and became impossible.

A deep breath or two later and I tried again. “We are a big family. We all have something to say and we all want to be heard. But if everybody is talking at once, you may get to say what you want to say, but you simply won’t be heard. And then what’s the point? We need to take it in turns, let others speak, listen to them…”

And for a while it worked. They waited patiently and let one another speak. I was very pleased… for a little while.

But something didn’t seem quite right… And then I realised what it was: they were waiting patiently to have their turn, but were so intent on their turn and what they wanted to say, that they weren’t listening to a word being uttered. And I realised that this was also one of my big frustrations. I stand and give directions (“Put your coat on, here’s your packed lunch, move your hands this is hot…” etc) or speak to them about something I consider to be important, and gradually become aware that even though I’m not being interrupted, they’re just waiting till I’ve finished in order to say what they want to say.

So we have a new challenge (and I should add that it applies to me, too – as a parent it is all too easy to understand that your child wants, no, needs to be heard and to let them speak, but if you just pitch in with your next instruction the second they finish speaking, what was the point of letting them speak?) and our new challenge is this: when someone has finished speaking, acknowledge that they have spoken. It doesn’t really matter how… the key is to make the person speaking understand that you were listening and have taken in what they were saying, whether or not you think it is important or even agree.

To feel heard is to feel valued, to feel valued is to feel loved, to feel loved is to grow, secure in your world.

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