“I did everything but listen, really listen,” says Michael to his wife, Alice. That’s a defining line at the end of the movie, When a Man Loves a Woman, a movie about a couple nearly torn apart permanently by alcoholism but who finds their way back to each other. In Alice’s recovery from alcoholism, she owns up to her self-loathing that she previously projected onto Michael, and accepts the need to forgive herself for the harm she did to her children and her husband while drunk. On Michael’s part, he realizes in their time apart what she had tried to tell him before—that she is not his problem to fix. He finally wakes up to the fact that he was never truly there for her. Rather, what he actually did “for” her, even if unknowingly, was judge and belittle her.
From the very first time I watched this movie many years ago, it really struck a chord within me. Aside from the coincidence that my first husband’s name also happens to be Michael, his parting comment to me when we split up in 1997 was he wished he had really listened to me before it was too late. While our marriage didn’t fail because of alcoholism, the problematic dynamic between Michael and Alice in that movie hit eerily close to home.
All these years later, I’m thinking of the above line from the movie again. That was prompted by my meditation on Sunday morning to contemplate and write about listening with our heart this week. Listening in general is a critical part of communication and relationships that is often missing. We are blinded by our judgments and busy formulating our response, instead of really hearing what the other person has to say. That runs havoc in relationships, whether at home or at work. In fact, good personal and organizational leadership calls for active listening.
Listen to recognize and understand
Beyond active listening, we need to cultivate our ability to listen with our heart, not just our head. When we listen with our head, we tend to automatically slip into analytic, problem-solving mode. We are ready to look for what’s wrong and chart the course to right it. However, when we listen only with our head, we miss the subtext and emotional undertone of the situation. Also, when we listen only with the unconscious reflex to fix something without being explicitly invited to do so, we risk belittling the person we judge to be having a problem and appear as if we know better than they do about how they feel. Whether at work or at home, this otherwise well-intended behavior can breed resentment that ultimately strangles the relationship.
When we listen with our heart, we connect to the part of us that isn’t conditioned to control but instead is naturally accepting, loving, compassionate and understanding. This part of us isn’t run by ego and doesn’t seek to be the hero/heroine who sees everything and everyone as a project to fix, a problem to solve. This part of us sees the same non-striving part of the other person that doesn’t need to be rescued but just wants to be seen, heard, recognized and understood just as s/he is. This part of us is simply present and says, “I’m here with you and for you in whatever way is meaningful to you.”
Listen to offer unconditional acceptance
When we drop our listening from our head to our heart, we are more able to cease judgment and hear what’s really behind the words uttered. When someone says, “I’m fine” but they really are not, they might as well be saying, “I’m not fine, but I’m too scared to admit it to you.” Assuming the problem-solving persona would only intimidate them further and cause them to retreat even more from our judgment. It does not inspire trust in them to confide their vulnerability in us.
Instead, if we simply let them know that we are there for them to listen whenever they want to talk, we offer our acceptance without conditions. Of course, that needs to be sincere, not just a decoy for luring them into sharing so that we can spring into action and give them the benefit of our problem-solving expertise—and inadvertently belittle them in the process, however well-intended our efforts might be. When we listen with our heart, we meet others on their terms. We accept others as they are and where they are, not as/where we believe they should be.
Listen to encourage and empower
When we listen with our heart, we are saying to others that we recognize, respect and trust them to ask for help if and when they need it. We model for our loved ones, friends and colleagues how to own our 50% of any relationship or exchange under any circumstance without over-stepping our bounds. When we listen without judgment and endeavor to meet others on their terms, we encourage and empower them to develop in their own time their ability to recognize their self-worth. In turn, that enables them to have the confidence to ask for what they need when they need it and to be open to receiving it. We let them know that we are there for them now and in their own rights, not because we believe they cannot thrive without us or that we see them as a personal improvement project.
Listen to love
When we listen with our heart without any agenda to fix or control anyone or anything, we are really saying, “I love you just as you are.” That’s because we aren’t driven by fear to do something to change anyone or anything. When we aren’t in fear, we are in love, and anything we do from this grounding is an expression of love. When we listen with our heart, we aren’t busy striving for anything other than to be there for others. By listening with our heart, we allow love to express itself through us. By listening with our heart, we love without needing to try.
Now, over to you: Would love to hear your take on listening with your heart, including any stories or anecdotes you may care to share.
Photo credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/
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