Listen up!

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I’ve been thinking about my grammar school librarian, Mrs. Praysitch. She was a prim, older woman with a severe gray bun and granny glasses; the absolute epitome of the grade school librarian. I remember how, just before story time, she would turn down the lights, pull on her earlobe like Carol Burnett, and say, “boys and girls, it’s time to put on your listening ears.” She taught us to listen to the silence, and we’d begin to hear things we’d missed before. The buzz of the heater in winter, the whoosh of the spring breeze through the open window, the creak of the playground see-saw outside. We’d use those same listening ears to hear the wondrous stories she told, and all the different voices she’d use as she brought the characters to life. Sometimes, we’d use them to discover things about each other. We played the listening game, when we interviewed our friends and learned about their favorite colors, their little brothers, and pet fish. We listened and learned who among us loved the Wizard of Oz, and who cried when the flying monkeys came. It seemed then that listening was truly a gift we’d been given, and a gift we could give to others. So, today, I find myself wondering what happened to our listening ears. In the past few days, I’ve witnessed a bunch of folks fail to use their listening skills. In my conversations with patients (names and identifying features have been changed) here’s what I heard: Mary told me how she attempted to comfort a newly widowed friend by sharing her own account of grief upon the passing of her beloved cat several years before. I watched as Connie pleaded with her sullen, teenage daughter Michelle to “open up and share,” but when Michelle started with, “I feel like you don’t really love me, Mom,” Connie quickly chided, “How can you say that, Michelle? You know that’s not true!” In a couple’s therapy session, Amy welled up with tears when she explained how worried she felt when her husband, Jake, was late for their dinner date. “It seemed like I was waiting alone for an hour…I was sure you’d been in an accident,” Amy offered. “That’s silly, hon,” Jake laughed, “I was only 15 minutes late. You worry over nothing!” Oh, and let’s not forget my own dear husband, who, when learning about my impossibly overscheduled day, quickly offered up a string of solutions for how I might relieve some pressure. But, I didn’t want the solutions. What I needed then to relieve the pressure was simply to talk and to be heard. And that’s what the widow, the teenager, and the worried wife needed, too. It’s what we all need. So, why does it seem that people have packed their listening ears away with their childhood storybooks? These days, people tend to place a higher premium on talking than listening. In our goal-oriented society, we value product over process. We want to be productive. We want to be helpful, and we believe that in order to be helpful we need to do something. It doesn’t seem enough to simply listen. Instead, we believe we have to relate, to counsel, to guide, and to solve. But sometimes there is nothing as healing and helpful as a listening ear. When we listen – really listen, without judging, comparing, advising, questioning, or solving, we allow others to feel connected and cared for. When we listen without saying, “why don’t you try…”, “if I were you….”, or “when that happened to me,” we give others message that they are worthy of our time, that what they have to say is valid and meaningful. When we listen, we invite others to safely unburden themselves, and allow them to feel less isolated and alone. Often, the most comforting words we can say to our loved ones are simply “tell me more,” and when they start to share, the best thing we can do is sit back and listen.

By Dr. Marla Cohen 01/25/2007 08:24 PM

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