Being a Good Listener

My comment to an online presentation began something like this, “I am frustrated by the natural process of watching my body age. I am glad my health is improving, but I’m struggling with the cost of that improvement. My husband no longer enjoys my cooking, and I’m bucking up against our doctor’s recommendation for a low sodium, calorie controlled eating plan. Though I’ve tried literally hundreds of new recipes, the vast majority fall short in flavor and/or texture. The joy I’ve always experienced with good home cooked meals is gone. Eating is now practical and functional, but all the enjoyment is gone.”

There were very few respondents who truly understood what I was saying, instead most comments gave advice or answers which worked for them. “Eat more organic food.” “Use more herbs and spices.” “Try the THM diet.” “Get a different doctor.” “Your vision is tainted by old feelings that you are not good enough.” Though much of the advice was good and everyone was honestly trying to be helpful, it was not what I was needing. Skilled psychologists, nutritionists, and physicians are easy to find, I was seeking a friend, a comforter, an ally and good listener…a more scarce commodity.

I know it’s a common habit, I have done it myself, all too often. In an effort to be helpful, I’ve given advice, passed on what has “worked” for me, and related my own experience with a similar circumstance, but did I truly LISTEN? The brutal answer is “Not really!”

Years ago, I participated in a week-long seminar in Epworth, Iowa as part of the Counseling and Learning Institute. The whole week was focused on “understanding and active listening.” I guess I never truly mastered what they tried to teach me, though I’ve been practicing for almost forty years. As I get older, I am realizing how important that process is. I guess it is a step in the right direction that I recognize when I haven’t been a good listener, even though it has usually been an after-the-fact recognition.

I believe it was Steven R. Covey who said, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand. Most people listen with the intent to respond.” It is extremely difficult to listen with the intent to understand. The ego must be disengaged, control must be relinquished, and one must be willing to admit powerlessness. The listener tries to hear the emotion and real message undergirding the words, in an effort to become a mirror so that the speaker can better understand the process taking place within. The listener begins with the belief that the person speaking already has the best pathway and just needs another person to help uncover that direction.

This ability to “let go” is especially difficult for people like me who have come to think of themselves as helpers and healers. We become very uncomfortable in situations where we feel helpless or out of control. Our desire to make things better is challenged by the realities of life and death. Sometimes improving a situation is physically impossible, and we don’t like to admit that truth.

In the statement at the beginning of this blog, the responses which were the most helpful were simple. “It is very difficult to age gracefully.” “You’re feeling angry and wondering if all your sacrifice is worth the results.” “You wish there was an easier route to accepting life as it is.” “Change is always a challenge.” “I’m sending positive energy in your direction!” “It’s a struggle, but you can do it!” They didn’t solve my dilemma, but they let me know I was not alone, pointed the way to hope and helped me find my own courage and perseverance.

As I type this blog, my husband and I are on our way to spend time with my sister and her husband. My brother-in-law is very ill and has been in the hospital for over two weeks. He has recently been given the news that his time on this earth may encompass a year or less. Much of that time, may be filled with doctors, medical procedures, tough treatment decisions, and restrictions.

They have been married 54 years! The stark reality of being separated is leaving their emotions raw. They are frightened and overwhelmed. These same concerns are always lurking in the back of the mind as we age and recognize that we have more years behind than ahead. But the word “terminal” and the shortened window of time brings those issues to the forefront and creates an urgency which batters the psyche and causes disorientation and confusion.

My prayer, as I travel, is that I might be a peaceful presence, that I may truly listen and surround them with love and support in this time of few answers.

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