Listening / Connecting by Patrick Lillard
As a Junior in high school, some 60 years ago, I was privileged to have a class titled Introduction to Philosophy. My most enduring memory of the class is the recurring discussions centered around the topic of “the existential dilemma.” That is, what is the meaning of life and where do we find our purpose in living? As a naïve, obsessive and concrete adolescent I argued, “So what?”
The wonderful teacher, Dr. John Kennedy, (no, not that John Kennedy) was an insightful and gentle man who remarked to me back in 1957, he was quite sure I would change my philosophical view on the existential dilemma in future years. Thus, I began an ongoing life long journey in search of this question: what is the meaning of our existence? What is the answer? Or is there no answer at all.”
The question about the meaning of life is universal and eternal, but the answer is ultimately individual, very personal and immediate. We may choose to say, “so what,” but the inexorable pressure and inevitable stress of life, forces us all, sometime in our journey to ask, “What is this all about?...Where do we find meaning in our lives?” Natalie’s Light suggests an answer.
For Natalie’s Light the answer to the existential dilemma is engagement, connections, relationships. Purpose and meaning are found by making positive connections with other beings who have a soul. You may recall our definition of the soul: the place within us where we find meaning and purpose. This is found almost exclusively through our relationships with others—all relationships, including family, friends, classmates, teammates. And yes, romantic relationships, as well as our connections with our dogs, cats, horses, or what have you. And, of course many find meaning and purpose in their religion; their private relationship with God, however and wherever, they may find their own personal spiritual being. Nothing comes close to providing authentic meaning and purpose other than our connections, our relationships.
While this is a simple concept, unfortunately making connections and sustaining relationships is often very difficult; some would say messy or not worth the effort. Relationships often make us vulnerable. Connections can be high risk. But the reward in sincere relationships is sublime, and transforming. Perhaps Natalie’s Light can help in this process. It may help you save a life.
Before discussing the booby traps we all fall into when trying to connect with others, please read this poem or prayer written by William R. Miller, the author, along with Stephen Rollnick of a powerful book called Motivational Interviewing. Miller explains this prayer was inspired by Native Americans of the Southwest, and the personal pronoun can be easily changed from her to his. Please read this slowly and carefully: it may bring meaning and purpose to your life.
Guide me to be a patient companion,
to listen with a heart as open as the sky.
Grant me vision to see through her eyes
And eager ears to hear her story.
Create a safe and open mesa on which we may walk together.
Make me a clear pool in which she may reflect.
Guide me to find in her your beauty and wisdom,
knowing your desire for her to be in harmony:
healthy, loving and strong.
Let me honor and respect her choosing of her own path,
and bless her to walk it freely.
May I know once again that although she and I are different,
yet there is a peaceful place where we are one.
The first step in establishing long lasting and meaningful relationships is the process of engagement. Miller and Rollnick define this as the process of establishing a mutually trusting and respectful helping relationship. This sounds simple and easy. Unfortunately relationships represent the most complex and difficult cognitive and spiritual transfers of psychic energy in our universe; while also being the most meaningful and purposeful transactions of our lives. Engaging in this process is high risk, but the rewards are transforming. Natalie’s Light feels this is a very spiritual activity, but there are some concrete and practical guidelines.
Natalie’s Light believes suicide is preventable. It can be prevented by awareness, education and training, and by direct intervention. AND, at the most elementary level the most powerful preventive force is making connections: establishing positive supportive relationships. We all are capable of doing this, if we have the right spirit and motivation. However, it requires what we call a center of gravity. That is, a sense of moral responsibility to have an open mind, a level of self-knowledge that accepts we do not have all the answers, and a continuing engagement with a process that asks, “How should we live our lives?” To borrow again from Miller and Rollnick, the spirit of Natalie’s Light is partnership, acceptance, compassion and evocation: “You have what you need and together we will find it.”
The first and indispensable step in engagement, connecting and finally in a sustained relationship is sincere listening and actually hearing what another person is saying. That other, the person we are trying to connect with, knows their feelings, their emotional state, even when they are not able to express it to others. They are the expert on how they feel and the listener does not know and should not judge how they feel. But the listener can help with the expression of emotions and feelings, by the very manner of listening. Listening is the key to understanding another person’s dilemma. Jiddu Krishnamurti describes the art and skill of listening with the following words:
“So, when you are listening to somebody,
completely and attentively,
then you are listening not only to the words,
but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed
to the whole of it, not part of it.”
Good listening is not a passive process; you have to work at it. Miller and Rollnick describe this as “reflective listening.” And another expert, Thomas Gordon, writing in 1970, Parent Effectiveness Training, calls this skill “Active Listening.” Gordon recommends we first learn what good listening is not. Here is a list of 12 kinds of responses that we commonly give to each other, that are not good listening. It may surprise you.
1. Ordering, directing or commanding
2. Warning, cautioning, or threatening
3. Giving advice, making suggestions or providing solutions
4. Persuading with logic, arguing or lecturing
5. Telling people what they should do; moralizing
6. Disagreeing, judging, criticizing or blaming
7. Agreeing, approving, or praising
8. Shaming, ridiculing, or labeling
9. Interpreting or analyzing
10. Reassuring, sympathizing, or consoling
11. Questioning or probing
12. Withdrawing, distracting, humoring, or changing the subject.
Remember we are trying to engage and connect with others. The best way to do this is to listen and not tell them what to do or how to feel. If a friend or acquaintance tells you they are in pain or distress, it is not listening to say to them: “You look fine to me,” or “ I don’t see what the problem is.” It may be appropriate to say nothing at all, and just be there with them. Also, a simple “tell me about it” will connect. They may not have the words, but they are not the person putting up roadblocks to connecting. In fact, if you are being the expert, the fixer, the analyzer, you are the roadblock to engagement and connecting.
Miller and Rollnick emphasize the value and power of“Nonverbal Listening.” Undivided attention is essential to active / reflective listening. Making eye contact is also important but keep in mind sustained eye contact can be intimidating to people who are in distress and anxious.
Reflective listening provides even more power to the process of engagement. “Reflective listening focuses on the person’s own narrative rather than asserting your own understanding of it.” This can be simply done by just repeating the statement of the person, while only inserting the pronoun you. For instance, the person admits “I have no friends and often feel lonely.” An appropriate reflective statement is to merely state, “You are feeling lonely.” This is validating the feeling and represents true empathy.
If the engagement and connection is not happening, it is often possible to breech the blockade with the magic word: HELP. That is, using the following phrases. First, “How can I help?” Or, “Can you help me?” Understanding, that they may not have the words and after listening carefully, you may be able to reflect back to them what they may be struggling to express.
“What people really need is a good listening to.”
----Mary Lou Casey