how to listen

My husband and I have been together for nearly twelve years, now, and we used to argue—like, a lot. We loved deeply in between the arguments and were relentless about cleaning them up, but the arguments punctuated our life together and created scar tissue, again and again.

I didn’t know how to listen. What changed everything was when we both started to (really) listen (better).

Now, understand this—I thought I was a great listener. He did, too. So when he’d open his mouth to speak, I’d think that I was listening because I was hearing and comprehending his words, and when I spoke, he thought he was doing the same.

But for a long time, neither of us was listening from the perspective of how the other person felt, so much as we were simply taking in a message. I was not putting myself in my husband’s shoes and imagining what it might be like, for him. I was simply listening to his words and reflecting back to him that, yeah-yeah, I understood that he didn’t like it when I did XYZ, I’ll try to work on that.

This cycle frustrated us to no end. I remember thinking, angrily, that I just didn’t get how I could be listening so closely and so hard, and still have him say that he didn’t think I understood. And I remember trying to tell him, over and over, why I was upset by this or that thing, and feeling angry and despairing when it was clear to me by how he responded that he wasn’t really “getting” me.

And then, through the magic of couples counseling and two people doing the work and who knows how many lucky breaks, something clicked. I began to understand that what I thought was “listening” was in fact just comprehending, and that what I wanted from him was not comprehending but rather, empathy.

I wanted him to “get” me.
I wanted him to imagine how it felt to be me, on “my side” of the argument.
I wanted empathy.

I wanted to tell my husband why I was frustrated, and not have him just say “I’m sorry.” I wanted to tell him how I felt, and have him practice empathy by imagining what it would be like to be me, the woman he loved, frustrated. I wanted him to “get” where I was “coming from.”

And that was what he wanted from me, too.

He wanted to tell me how he felt, and he didn’t just want me to say, “Ah, I see—I snapped at you when we were in the car and I’m sorry.”

He wanted me to understand the impact of when I snapped at him.
He wanted me to understand what it felt like, to be on his side of that experience.
He wanted empathy.

* * *

During this post-election week, I have been doing my damndest to (really) listen (better).

I understand that we live in a country where two parties have different belief systems and values. I grew up in the Midwest, and a large number of my extended family is staunchly conservative. When we’re talking about differing opinions about gun control or economic policy, I think, “Okay, we have different politics.”

When we’re talking about Trump, someone who has been openly hostile towards people with disabilities, minorities, different religions, immigrants, and women, I think, “Okay, this person (Trump) has a different slant on humanity, and it’s not one that is even remotely rooted in kindness.”

And yet millions of people have just voted him into office. I have felt devastated by this, not necessarily because of liberal vs. conservative politics, but because of the bigotry and hatred that Trump represents.

So I find myself trying to (really) listen (better).

I am trying to (really) listen (better) to the groups that have been disenfranchised for so long that they don’t even trust the sudden upsurge in protest and activism and desires to help (“Where have you been, all this time?” is the refrain I’ve heard).

I am trying to (really) listen (better) to what exactly it is a Trump supporter wants to get under this presidency, and what they feel they aren’t getting, now. Because I’d rather try to find ways to work towards compromises in economic policy across the parties, than allow someone who has no problem with openly airing his bigotry into a position of leadership.

I am trying to (really) listen (better) when someone tells me all the ways that I currently live in a privileged bubble. I’m trying to listen because of how many times I haven’t understood my privilege until it has been pointed out to me, over and over.

* * *

I think it takes courage to listen, especially when people are angry and frightened and sometimes mud-slinging before fact-checking. We all (every human) does this when angry and frightened. Most of us don’t even know how to listen . We think we do, but we don’t.

I think it takes more courage to really listen than it does to quickly move into strategy and to-do lists. Until you (really) listen (better), a problem can’t be understood or disentangled.

I didn’t wake up this week and suddenly decide that I was upset, or that I was finally going to listen—I woke up this week and noticed that the divisiveness in this country felt a lot like those tired, ongoing arguments. And maybe I thought I had been listening, this entire time, but maybe in fact I’d been elitist and dismissive with the political party that I wasn’t affiliated with, and not clear enough to the groups who will be hit the hardest by a Trump presidency that I care, that I’m willing to fight alongside you and under your direction as you work towards a better life; that I’ve never been unaware or unwilling and that I’m sorry that this wasn’t apparent, sooner.

I hardly have all of the answers. No one does. The issues are far more complex and nuanced than what I describe, here, and racism and sexism and social justice issues are absolutely part of this. But I at least want to start with (really) listening (better), and I invite others to do the same.