In the two years since I first published a post on compassionate listening, I’ve had many opportunities, both personally and professionally, to experience how very essential to our wellbeing and our relationships compassionate listening truly is.
Whether our listening involves another person face to face, on the phone, or via text or email, or just watching a speaker on TV, we can miss a lot if we aren’t giving what we hear (or consume electronically) our full attention. True wisdom mandates we really attend to the other person openly, empathically and with kindness.
I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging that I experience in my work as a psychologist practicing psychotherapy. Because I’m now a Medicare provider in an area with fewer such providers, my psychotherapy practice embraces more older men and women than ever before. As I and those around me get older I’ve had many personal experiences with these listening impediments as well.
The first impediment is impaired hearing in which the listener mishears or fails to hear all our words and “fills in” what they think we said, sometimes getting it very wrong. Later someone one tells us emphatically that we said thus and so, perhaps something very contrary to our intent or even tragically so, creating a conflict we must now try to resolve, a potential distraction to the potentially sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communication to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do. While it can be amusing, as the photo below illustrates, usually communication failure due to hearing problems is far from funny. It’s embarrassing and frustrating and interferes with friendly interactions.
The second impediment is the increasingly frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with greater frequency. Speakers may pause as they search for certain words or familiar phrases, creating gaps in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy.
Another variation on the word-finding phenomenon is the speaker reaching into his or her vast vocabulary database, as it were, and pulling out a similar but incorrect word. The similarity may be sound (e.g. tractor for factor). It may be the way the word begins or ends (shrimp for sharp), or relate in some other way we cannot fathom as the speaker struggles to get a point across. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The annoyed or frustrated response may follow, “You know what I mean!” Perhaps we do, but what if we don’t?
Compassionate listening involves seeing and feeling the struggle that others are experiencing and giving them time and space to find their way. If they grow silent with overwhelm or discouragement, or say, “Forget it!” we might ask, “Want me to try to help you with what you’re trying to say?” If they ask us to suggest a word, we should do so, but with the tentative deference suggesting we leave it to them to confirm or reject our suggestion. I find it helps to offer something like, “I’m having trouble hearing what you’re trying to say. My fault. Would you please try again?”
As we ourselves get older we probably will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves if we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, in our meditation practice as well as our daily interactions, we will naturally feel more compassion as we listen.