The Miracle of Quality Listening

By Emma Pearson

July 16, 2024

Image by Sammy Williams on Unsplash

20 March 2022

COVID restrictions are falling away, even in France, which means that I am going out a bit more. 

This week I had four sorties mid-week – a wine-bar near my home, a premiere at the cinema with Medjool and his daughters, a goodish walk in the neighbouring vineyards and forests, and a chic resto in downtown Geneva. Two of the non-Medjool sorties were with wimmin friends I know very well, who know me very well, and the third was with a new-to-me contact – we had met on the recent Climate Coaching Alliance virtual festival, hung out in a break-out zoom room during one session, shared where we live, and discovered, amazingly, that we live in, literally, next door villages. So we decided to meet up face-to-face for walkies with my dog.

Before our Rendez Vous, I had that inevitable and familiar wondering of, hmm, what will I say, what will I not say, about my life? Will she be able to “hold it all?” It’s awful, having to triage what gets said and what does not. When the hard stuff, or some of it, gets left out, I know the budding friendship will be too one-sided to go anywhere. That used to be okay, and it isn’t anymore.

But it all went well. My new friend listened. She shut up. She made appropriate noises. She asked appropriate questions. She listened further. I had about 50% of the overall airtime. Such a rare thing, in my experience.

There was no “Oh my god how awful!”

There was no me having to save her from the disasters in my life.

There was no hijacking with her own stories.

And there was no, “You’re so courageous!”

I realise again and again just how prevalent the “You’re so courageous” or “You’re so strong” is as a response. Even from people I have known for decades. And how inadequate, how enraging, it is. Especially when I have known people for decades.

I wrote about this soon after Mike died, after I’d pondered why I felt so violent when people say it.

At the time, over 3 ½ years ago, I realised that I felt that the person saying it was, in effect, washing their hands of me. “You’re clearly strong. You’re figuring it out. So you don’t need my help. Which is a good thing, because then I don’t need to sit in the shitty mess with you”. I don’t know if the unsaid subtext is conscious or intended, or not. But it feels like what is implied is, “I’m outta here”.

I saw a new film this week, the premiere of “Tout Commence” – a documentary by a Swiss film-maker of his climate activist kids and friends. One of the young, teenage, activists, deplored the apparently encouraging words from (we) older generations. The, “Bravo les jeunes!” (Well done you youngsters! Good for you for fighting for climate action! I am proud of you!) She said words to the effect of, “It’s exhausting. It sounds like a compliment but it’s alienating. Isolating. This is exhausting work, and we all need to be in it together. Take over from time to time. Be an activist. Let us have a rest and recoup from time to time”.

I realise that it’s the same shitty compliment. It’s the same washing of hands. It’s the same, “I see you in the shitty mess, trying to figure it out. And I admire you, but I won’t hang in there with you. It looks a mess, and I don’t really want to know what it’s like. Not really. So I will say something encouraging just to make it sound like I support you”.

So back to my new friend and what about being listened to is so precious a gift.

It’s the not reacting.

It’s the not offering useless, rage-inducing, platitudes.

It’s just about absorbing, making space for, being with, and not trying to fix.

It’s also about asking good questions, curiosity-based questions. Ones that I actually need to reflect on a little. Questions that make me think anew. Questions that result in me learning something new about myself. So that I am not just going over tried and tested versions of my story (which, frankly, the way ItellitsofastbecausIdon’twanttoupsetpeopletoomuch, sounds flat and boring to my ears). And instead hearing myself say something new and interesting for a change.

I don’t have this experience very often. I didn’t have that experience with the two otherwise very dear and wonderful wimmin friends I know so well, who know me so much better. Just with the almost-stranger.

It is not about quality or history of relationship. It is all about skill and intention, and capacity for being present for someone else, in addition to oneself. Present for me, and present – deep self-care – for themselves. So that they don’t collapse. So that both of our courages are honoured.

Such a gift.

A rare and precious skill. And so soothing and nourishing when I receive the gift of it.

About Emma Pearson

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