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Years ago when I decided I wanted to become a therapist, I applied with great anticipation to the esteemed Northwestern University master’s program.
I figured I was a shoe in—or maybe I was just filled with false bravado.
Nevertheless, I walked into my interview thinking, “I got this!” And then I was promptly rejected.
That I was accepted the second time around did little to ease my shame—I was subpar, barely worthy, and I obsessed over this rejection for a good while.
What was it? What was wrong with me, or what had I done that made me, despite my academic background and accomplishments, land on top of the NU reject pile?
The fated interview was set up for a group of applicants, and we were all given questions to hash out among us while our potential professors observed our behavior. I’m embarrassed to say my behavior was decidedly uncounselor-like. I grabbed a hold of the questions and extrapolated points, which I then went on to try and prove like my life depended on it.
I wasn’t much interested in what anyone else had to say, except insofar as it served my purpose. Admittedly, nerves were a factor here, but that’s no excuse. I dominated the table like a desperate kid on a national debate team, entirely missing the fact that counseling is never about trying to convince someone you are smarter than they are, but rather that you are present and compassionate.
As I moved through school, I slowly began to realize how narcissistic a person I was. It wasn’t on purpose (is it ever?) and I won’t bore you with the details of how I came to be the most self-centered person in the room, but it was the truth, and to do the job I fantasized about doing that would have to change.
I slowly learned to stop talking and start listening. This sounds simple, and it is! But it isn’t always easy.
The first step, I realized, was to tamp down the panic that no one was listening to me. This, in my opinion, is the root of all narcissism and the reason marriages go down in flames, friendships blow up, and the world has wars. It’s true, we all need and deserve to be listened to, but the chances of that happening increase exponentially (albeit counterintuitively) when we lead by example.
The better we listen, the more we are heard.
The second step was to get really interested in what another person is saying, be they your friend, partner, child, or even your boss. As a counselor, of course, I am interested because everything a client says is data for us to process, but this doesn’t always translate in more personal relationships.
The thousandth time my husband tells me the story about saving a girl from falling to her death in the Grand Canyon—a story that was captivating the first time around—is capital B Boring.
How do we combat the boredom (or the anxiety or the anger) and still stay tuned in?
Ask yourself this simple question:
Why is this person telling me this thing, in this way, right now? What need are they trying to get met?
Options for my husband’s Not-So-Grand Canyon tale…he needs:
>> to validate that he is strong and competent
>> to bond with me by sharing adventures he’s had
>> to deal with encroaching mortality by reminiscing about younger days
>> to manage loneliness by filling up space
Of course, none of this might be right, and none of it needs to be stated out loud (that’s not listening!), but considering the question keeps us attuned and engaged when otherwise we might drift off to our grocery lists or whatever outfit we plan to wear tomorrow.
Other strategies include noticing the person’s facial expressions and gestures while you take in their words, noticing how you feel in your own body as they speak, noticing and then releasing all the things you feel you might want to say, and breathing.
When it is our turn to speak, we should first try to reflect back whatever it is we think we heard. To my husband I might say, “Thank goodness you were there to save that girl’s life!” Or “You’ve really had a lot of adventures, haven’t you?” (Without sarcasm, duh!)
When the other person nods, smiles, or elaborates a bit more, you know you’ve hit your mark. If you missed your mark, just try again. This works with literally everybody because it is a gift that few people receive.
Can you imagine how intensely wonderful it would feel for someone to invest so much energy into you? Circumstances don’t always dictate that this is possible of course. If someone in your life is abusive, for example, affording them this kind of attention is not a good idea—but in relationships that are healthy, or that you are trying to make healthier, and in moments when you can pull it off, this communication style is a real game changer.
The funny thing about it is it is not only a gift you give to those you love, it is truly empowering for us as well.
As I mentioned, I used to have the panicky feeling that I wasn’t being heard, or to put it another way, that I wasn’t very important, or to put it another nother way, that I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s time or attention. I got pretty loud and outrageous as a result, always ready to throw down and get in the fray, and to do so with big doses of sarcasm punctuated by wild gesticulation and some salty sailor talk (which still pops out despite my best attempts to reel myself in). In short, I was a hot mess.
But once I slowed down and started worrying less about what other people thought of me and more about what they were trying to say to me, I became much more centered. Some have described me as calm (not those who have to live with me, but some people). I can feel it as I write about it; the shift from nervous attention seeking or trying to do damage control to observer, interpreter, witness—what a relief!
If you feel like you want to try and be a better listener, start small.
Notice a time when someone else is speaking and you feel an urgent need to interrupt them, and then don’t. Take a breath, reorient yourself, and zero in on whatever (utterly fascinating Grand Canyon) tale they are spinning. Look at their eyes, listen to their tone of voice, check their body language, and wonder, what are they trying to tell me right now?
After a generous amount of time, gently reflect back what you think you heard them say. If you get it wrong, gently, gently try again. Notice the strange sense of being in control of yourself and the goodness of being there for someone else.
Even if things don’t go as you imagine (and they won’t), you’ve done something big and brave. The world thanks you for it.
You’ve given permission to others to do the same thing, and they can start to listen too.