“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” –Ernest Hemingway
I’m not sure when I realized I became more of a fixer than a listener, or if it truly happened all the time, but I noticed myself doing it not only with my kids, but also with my friends. I would give advice or the ever so “helpful” pep talk when someone was in the depths of it, rather than just listening and being with them in it. The great American quick fix because it’s easier than having to sit with the discomfort or perhaps silence. I would generally recognize this after the fact, kick myself and promise to do better next time . Be determined to listen, reflect and hold tightly to their words and with them, be there fully with my whole self because that is truly what a loving being does. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not. With my children the times I used these skills, meltdowns came to a quicker halt, connections deepened, and everyone felt better.
Several years after I graduated from college I was hired as the Volunteer Coordinator for a 24 hour suicide prevention and crisis intervention line. The position required me to not only keep coverage on the phones 24/7, but also to train all the volunteers working the lines, as well as the other more seasoned volunteers training them along side me. This job taught me skills that I would take with me for the rest of my life.
The purpose of our time on the phone with callers was NEVER to give advice or solve their problems, but rather through active listening help them to come to a better place and hopefully find answers on their own. Active listening requires the listener to fully participate in the conversation, by hearing the speaker with complete and full attention. Then reflecting back phrases or feelings that summarize what has been heard. The speaker can correct the listener if something was misunderstood or go on with what they need to convey, but they feel fully heard and attended to. Often just through hearing their own thoughts and feelings reflected and knowing someone was truly listening on the other end of the phone callers came up with solutions on their own, or were able to manage a crisis situation. OR SIMPLY BELIEVE THAT LIFE IS STILL WORTH LIVING.
For many years that followed my time at this job I found that active listening was my automatic go to when someone would come to me with a problem, and more often than not, I found people, even those I didn’t know, confiding in me and sharing parts of their struggle. After a time though my own life took some major twists and turns and these skills became less and less engrained in the muscle memory of my brain. Then I had children. As any parent knows, you are constantly solving problems (even sometimes when you recognize, albeit later, it would be better for the child to solve it him/herself).
When my sister’s husband died very suddenly a few year ago, I remember reading everything I could on the internet about how to best help her. I already knew how to listen, but it was a refresher on things not to say. In my life currently, as I navigate through very difficult waters I think back to those articles. How often have I said things, and sometimes heard things like “You’ll get through this.” “You’re strong.” “Don’t worry. You’re doing great.” “This too shall pass.” “Just keep praying.” or the one we never truly know, “It’ll be ok” and that is the crux of the listener’s participation. Perhaps we actually aim to make ourselves feel better by offering these words, and we of course mean well, but often (not always) we are not truly listening. Maybe we are so uncomfortable with another’s crisis that rather than listen or just acknowledge their pain we offer the quick fix with simple phrases and pats on the back. If the speaker recognizes this they may sense the listener’s uncomfortableness and become quiet and stop sharing. Instead of sitting with them in the pain and acknowledging their situation, “This sounds really difficult.”, “You’re going through a hard time.”, “It’s a daily struggle” which then opens up the conversation to go deeper and allows the speaker to truly express themselves. Active listening requires the listener to be “with” the speaker throughout the process, to be fully engaged, connected. And it is beautiful.
“When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.”
― Madeleine L’Engle
As I was reflecting on all active listening, my desire to improve on my skills, and find those who truly can sit with me when needed, I started to muse about how it translates to flow arts, my hooping and dance practice specifically. I dance regularly without my hoop. My favorite part of my practice is listening to new music deeply, intensely and discovering what the artist has to “say” next. I love that act of listening to my body, knowing how it will translate the music into movement, in sync and in a way that is unique to me. I recognize this as a way of active listening in my art. Becoming so engaged with what is happening, listening so deeply that the movement just “is”.
Of course this doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes I’m stuck in my head. Thinking about the events of the day, or feeling awkward in my body and sure that everyone around me is noticing. Perhaps my emotions are too strong that day and I can’t actively listen to the music or the cues my body is sending. These are the times when it is important for me to sit with those feelings, listen to them, be with them…even in the discomfort. Actively listen to myself.
All of this is true as well when I’m hooping, only I have one more partner to listen to. My hoop is no longer just a piece of plastic tubing, but has energy, a life force, and begs to be heard. If I fail to listen to the messages the hoop sends, it drops, advances to a place on my body that is unintended, and becomes awkward. As in dance, the music must also be heard in order to create flow. With practice all three, my body, the hoop, and the music can work together to create a place of beauty and peace within myself. A place where each is heard and responded to. To me, this too, is active listening and when it is done consciously and without interruption incredible things can happen. In this space, I am truly sitting with myself.
The space of being in flow, of practicing dance and hooping allows me the awareness of how to listen to myself. How to be more aware and mindful of my feelings, the strengths and areas to work on, and the ability to sit with my own discomfort, rather than have a quick fix to dull the pain. I absolutely believe that this space of consciousness creates more space for being fully present to actively listen to others. By continuing my practice of dance and hooping I am able to be fully connected with YOU. And that is what my dream of life is.