And I would call it “Shut Up and Listen.”

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

If I were to write a book right now, I would talk about how important it is to be heard.

I think some of our worst decisions are made when we feel like no one is listening.  I used to have a recurring nightmare that ended with me screaming and crying while the people I needed to hear me milled around unaffected.  I’ve never felt more like a prisoner than when I was trapped behind that invisible soundproof wall.

When we are unheard, we get louder.  If not in word, than in deed, and that’s where the real trouble begins.

If I were to write a book right now, I would talk about how important it is that we listen.

One of the very first things I learned in marriage counseling was how to listen.  I had previously imagined myself to be a good listener; I could sit for hours and talk to you about your life and your problems.  But I hadn’t the faintest clue how to just listen.  More importantly, I didn’t know how to make someone feel heard.

Neither did my husband.

We were two people on the brink of divorce and I firmly believe that learning how to listen pulled us back from the cliff’s edge.  It still amazes me how powerful a silent ear can be.  Even the most volatile of situations can be quickly diffused by an empathetic listener.  And oh, Lord, the relief that comes from being heard.  Sometimes you don’t even know that’s what you needed until someone gives it to you, and then the stress and anger and fear rushes out like steam.

If I were to write a book right now, I would talk about how much the world needs us to just listen.  Full stop.

Before counseling, I thought I was a good listener.  What I’ve since learned is that I was an overeager helper.  Everything that was said to me became twisted in my head until it was about what I needed to do.

You’re scared?  You’re lonely?  You’re hungry?  You’re hot?  You’re not sure whether that thing is infected?

WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?!?!?!  Here, let me tell you what you should do!  Or! Better still!  I’ll do it for you!

I thought this was noble.  I thought this was generous and a sign of what good people do.  I had no idea how much I was taking from people by rushing in to fix instead of sitting beside them to listen.  I couldn’t see the line between sharing my experience and pushing my values and agenda.  I couldn’t see how much of my anger and resentment started with my unsolicited help.

If I were to write a book right now, I would tell you that people don’t need to be fixed.

I helped because someone had to.  I helped because you were hurting, and I didn’t want you to hurt anymore.  I helped because you were complaining, so obviously you needed solutions.  I helped because if I didn’t, you wouldn’t figure it out for yourself.

And yet, you do.  You all do.  We all do.  We figure out answers to the most impossible problems.  We lose children and spouses and siblings and we figure out how to get up in the morning.  We fail magnificently and cower in corners and blow money we don’t have, and we find our own reasons to do things differently eventually.  Or we don’t.  But we go on.  Life goes on.  And we are stronger and richer for having figured it out.

It may take moments, months, or years, but in the end we look back and are amazed at how big our old problems once seemed.  Always.  This is always the way of things for humans.

The secret, I believe, to good listening is faith in common humanity, in realizing that you are no more and no less capable of figuring things out than anyone else.

If I were to write a book right now, I would tell you that listening is the key.

To better parenting.  To stronger marriages.  To beautiful friendships.  To inner peace.

To, perhaps, even world peace.

If I were to write a book right now, that’s what I would say.

What would you say?

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  1. That. Defnitely that. And don’t be so quick to judge (I still need help with that).

  2. Robin says:

    So true – I’m guilty of trying to be a “fixer” even as I find it incredibly frustrating and annoying when others do it to me.

  3. Sondra says:

    This is an awesome post. Thank you for this.

    As a parent educator and life coach I have seen, firsthand, relationships that have been destroyed or damaged because people have forgotten or never knew how to just listen.

    It’s interesting to think that when kids – and adults – feel the need to lash out violently (either physically or verbally) it’s usually because they feel unheard.

    Thanks again for this wonderful post.

  4. Poppy says:

    I <3 this post.

    Are you secretly writing this book? :)

  5. Kate says:

    I agree that listening is the key. I am a good listener. My ex husband was not. My current husband is learning to be a better listener, instead of trying to fix things immediately. Its a good practice, listening.
    Kate
    http://www.idreamloudly.cok

  6. Lisa says:

    I am working on being a listener instead of a fixer. It’s really hard sometimes to stop rushing in to help, or to bite my tongue when I need to, but I’m learning. I have a feeling I’m going to be getting a crash course in that very soon.

  7. Excellent. Too many people enjoy hearing themselves speak too much to listen when anyone else has something to say. If people would learn to listen it would solve so many problems.

  8. MB says:

    Listen up … if you were to write a book right now, I would buy it!

  9. Lady Mama says:

    It think that IS a book that needs to be written. And I think I need to buy it. Great post.

  10. Hockeymandad says:

    I would say you got a great heart kid.

  11. Tina says:

    To empathize. If we could all just put ourselves in another’s shoes….
    Best,
    Tina

  12. Jennifer says:

    Wow, Britt. This is amazing. And it made me cry. But I’m a little emotional this week. ‘Overeager helper’. That’s me. “pushing my values and agenda” – me. Then I wonder why people only come to me if they need me to tell them how to fix a problem (one involving facts that they don’t know, but know that I DO know) instead of just to talk about things.

    This is a book I would buy and read. For sure.

  13. Finn says:

    When I first started commenting on blogs, I was full of advice. Until I realized that I sounded just like my mom, and it drove me crazy when she would give me advice when I just needed to get things off my chest sometimes.

  14. Kirsten says:

    If you do end up writing this book, I’ll be first in line to buy one – for my mother.

    A copy for myself wouldn’t hurt either.

  15. PaintingChef says:

    I would thoroughly enjoy that book.

    You know, one of the biggest breakthroughs Patrick and I had in our communication and the way we relate to each other was one time, in a fit of anger and frustration, I just threw up my hands closed my eyes and yelled “STOP TRYING TO FIX IT! I DON’T NEED YOU TO FIX IT!” And he looked at me like I was screaming in Swahili. But then he got it. It’s a big lesson. But an invaluable one.

  16. amanda says:

    I am a terrible listener. Just ask my husband.
    As we sit on the brink here of divorce, I will try to do my best to be a better listener.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  17. Robin says:

    What always helps me is not only trying to listen to people (I think it’s rare for people to say how they really feel) but to try to put myself in their shoes before I judge or assume anything. That’s always helped me but then I have a tendency to be judgmental…on occasion.

  18. TJ says:

    If you got “Shut Up and Listen” from Jake Summers’s radio show on California Dreams, can we be best friends?

    If not, that’s ok, too, because it is a totally appropriate title for a much needed book.

  19. Miss Britt says:

    @TJ, ah crap, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of that show. :-(

  20. bridget says:

    It,s funny how the the very things youre begining to recognise as a fault in onself is exactly what you,ve written and its so true,I too am a serial helper and going tru the motions of life but never fully particapating in my own life but consumed by everyone else,s dramas.I have to allow everyone especially my children,friends to make their own mistakes,decisions.Listen ,to hear one must be truly present,hold back on advising,fixing.thx Ruby

  21. I would read this book. :) The whole not-fix-it thing is a lesson I’m learning.

  22. Miranda says:

    Great post. Good listening feels sometimes like a lost art form. I was lucky enough to learn, and understand that you have to allow people to walk their own road and that support often means simply sitting there, with them in the moment and hearing them talk about their journey. Miss Britt I would buy your book in a New York minute!

  23. lora says:

    I took this communications class for work last year and I thought I would learn what to say and when to say it, and what I really learned is shut the hell up and you don’t need to speak about everything you think about.
    It has done wonders for my marriage, my family ties, and my career.

    I was always so concerned with what to say next that I wasn’t really listening to what was being said.

    I’d read your book

  24. naomi says:

    Good listening IS a lost art … just like writing handwritten letters.

    It’s often so awkward to “just listen” because we have all gotten so good at “helping” … I’ve been practicing it more (just listening) and I swear I can hear my heart beating and my tongue gets all numb from biting it … so that I DONT respond, talk or offer advice.

    I’ll buy the book too … fit that into your remaining spare time and get to writing!

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