A friend has been trying to lead me towards a different way of listening to difficult truths. You can’t be so judgmental, she insists (although I’m not). You need to be open to hearing her perspective without disagreeing with it. The Shrink and Sage similarly weigh in against “the habit of being overly critical, quick to jump to conclusions, rigid in one’s assessments, reluctant to examine one’s point of view.”
I failed our first run at it, challenging me about whether an effort to build a life with someone I cared deeply for was, in fact, doomed from the start, and caused entirely by my actions and choices. The ensuing argument reverberated for weeks.
This time I did better. Knowing how I would feel about the topic we planned to discuss, how I would react to things that might be said, I put it off until we could have a face-to-face conversation. In sensitive areas, I recognized the autonomic signs in my gut, throat, and chest that signaled trouble, took deep breaths and stepped back from the emotion, cleared my mind and held my tongue.
Her tale was difficult to hear, hurt for what was said, but I didn’t devolve into anger, sadness, or self-pity. I didn’t question, control, or manipulate the story, listened openly and without judgment. I did react twice, to distortions or selective lies, but otherwise was proud of myself for keeping on a better path.
A day later, though, a wolf long-banished returned.
It was late at night, I was tired and stressed from the day’s work. And there was a sudden and overwhelming emotion that welled up from my gut and enveloped me; tears started to run freely. Like the morning’s breakdown in July, it was an uncontrollable physical reaction to intense emotional release. Both frightened and embarrassed, I phoned a friend for help. Together, we regained my stability and equilibrium.
On reflection, I believe i have separated what from how:
- I listened openly and non-judgmentally, neither interrupting with questions nor trying to steer, control, or spin the story. But later there many questions, likely many more subconscious ones, as I took in what was said. And, alone in the dark, answers could only be imagined, guessed at, and nobody could help me to resolve them.
There still has to be an opportunity to clarify and react together: simply listening and storing away is not good, alone.
- I was hearing the story indirectly, only the recollected spoken words. They were most likely framed to another audience and purpose, to my dutch friend and not to me. Additionally, the original words were being transcribed from english to dutch to english, further filtered through inevitable cultural, professional, and personal biases. This is, at best, impoverished and misleading communication. 80% of communication is unspoken prosody, transmitted through the vocal melody, rhythmic flow, facial expressions and body language of the person telling their story. Absent this, spoken words are grey and ambiguous, perhaps conveying nothing at all and only fit to stir up fears and fantasies.
Communication has to be direct and complete: words alone are very incomplete and invite reinterpretation.
- The circumstances imposed on me have cut me off from any knowledge or contact. I’ve been repeatedly told that details were none of my business and i was forbidden from reaching out to fix things. But, asymmetrically, I had now been wholly opened for inspection. She held a detailed walk-through of my life, my children and parents, my work, residences, friends, and travel, any questions, then discussion, for hours. I do feel violated by both the intrusion and the commentary.
Sharing information must be reciprocal; collecting information secretly while concealing yourself is cowardly and transgressive.
- Their meeting was secretly arranged with a purpose. Whether to balance perceptions or to motivate actions, her purpose has a moral dimension: what is said or why fits into a clear right or wrong intention. It is impossible to listen to lies presented as facts, 'objective' assertions about events that I know from personal experience are false, without judging. I cannot, as a human being, understand what is untrue, sympathize with what is selfish and hurtful, accept nor forgive what is vengeful and destructive, ever.
Open listening cannot equate to open acceptance: assimilation and accommodation must be in balance, mediated by judgment.
So, then, does forcing myself to listen openly and non-judgmentally help or hinder understanding, communication and healing?
The Shrink observes:
Making judgments is an essential part of what it means to be human. It seems vitally important to be able to assess what comes our way, discriminating between what is valuable and what should be avoided. Unexamined judgments, however, are more likely to propel us towards unwise action. So it’s not a question of avoiding value judgments but of becoming aware of what they are and scrutinising them as much as possible, being open and questioning, challenging our immediate interpretations with plausible alternatives.
While the Sage reflects:
The desire to avoid judgment has some well-intentioned motivations. No one has infallible access to moral truth and there is more than one good way to live. But that does not mean that no one has any moral insight and that there aren’t many wrong ways to live. Value judgments should be accompanied by caution and humility, but the uncritical stance of “anything goes” has gone.
In this, I am reminded of a Cherokee parable, right.
Making the correct decision really does come down to making a conscious choice.
A choice of which wolf I shall feed.