"You're not a good listener." I was taking a walk with my college roommate when she spoke those words. Jen and I hadn’t been getting along, so we had carved out time to try to get to the bottom of some relational snags we had hit. In the middle of the conversation, she spoke these words. I'm not going to lie. I felt like I had been slapped across the face. I loved Jen. Did she really think I didn’t love her enough to listen to her? I stammered and reeled, wanting to defend myself. Once the initial shock wore off, I wanted to slink into the shadows. Her words shed an unwanted spotlight on a weakness of mine. The spotlight is an appropriate metaphor, I think. A natural entertainer, I subconsciously saw relationships as a mini-stage where the other person was my audience. I loved people but rather superficially. I wasn’t stopping to get to know them. I thought that charming them, and amusing them, was enough.
Jen was telling me that there had to be more. I had been ignoring her. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t get a word in edge-wise, though I am sure this was also the case; it’s that I wasn’t pausing long enough to see her at her core.
It’s as if I had been taking a walk in Rock Creek park, and was so focused on my destination or listening to my ipod, that I was missing the smell of the pine trees, the scattered twigs, and the uneven rocky path. I wasn’t hearing or seeing Jen.
This might seem like an odd post for a blog focused on everything pertaining to health. However, awareness is a key element, as we grow in understanding in relationship with the broader world and ourselves. We need to hone our observation skills in all areas. It can begin with emotions. You might be feeling stressed or angry. Observe yourself, without judgement. Where did this feeling originate? Seek to understand yourself. It's a great first step in changing patterns. Take these observation skills to your relationship to food. Are you eating right now because you're hungry or is it a response to a situation in your life that has you worried?
Strong relationships are also critical for our well-being. And as Jen was trying to tell me, they are a two-way street and require focus and intentionality. I’ve come to realize that listening to someone is not just about hitting “pause” on my end of the conversation (though there is that) but it’s about discovering the wonder of another person.
“It’s like people who are busy planning their vacation; they spend months planning it and they get to the spot and they’re all anxious about their reservations for flying back. But they’re taking pictures alright, and later they’ll show you pictures in an album of places they never saw, only photographed. That’s a symbol of modern life. I cannot warn you enough about this kind of asceticism. Slow down and taste and see and hear and let your senses come alive.” ~ “Awareness: the perils and opportunities of reality” by Anthony de Mello
I’m still growing in my awareness, in observation, in listening---to my surroundings, to myself and to others. I’m not there, yet. But I’ve started the journey. Especially in relationships, I am working on focusing on people around me in a new way. I’m making efforts not to jump in to help them finish their sentences (as if I would know better than they what they were trying to communicate). I’m getting more comfortable with silence and pauses in the conversation. I’ve learned many a thing as I’ve truly grown in my ability to see and know others.
When Jen told me straight up that I was a poor listener, she gave me a gift, though I certainly didn’t see it that way at the time. “Better are the wounds of a friend than the kisses of an enemy.”
As the new year kicks off, and we are all thinking about goals, resolutions and ways to improve ourselves, let’s not miss nurturing our relationships. And a key way to do so is to learn to listen.