Friday, April 23, 2010

An Unusual Lesson in Listening

When my oldest son was a baby, wanting to be the best parent I could, I decided to learn Effective Parenting and enrolled in a course. I learned active listening, how to communicate in non-blameful ways, how to resolve conflicts in the family, etc. I did a pretty good job, I thought, applying the skills I learned to my relationship with my children, and as they grew I noticed that despite the chaos and confusion of family life, we listened to each other much of the time.

When my son was about 12, he and I began having a “night out” together every week. We did what he wanted, which was always to go to the local mall and “cruise”. He helped me pick out what to wear so I would be as cool as possible (given the handicap of being an adult). We would walk around, talk, sometimes shop, play video games or table hockey, have an ice cream and drive home.

When he was about 13, a close friend of mine died. I decided to be silent for 3 days in memory of her. One of these days fell on Wednesday, the day of my weekly date with my son. I told him beforehand that I would not be talking and asked him if he wanted to go ahead and have the date anyway. I told him he could talk to me all he wanted, but I would not say anything. He said that he wanted to go ahead with our regular plan.

When the time came, we got into the car, as usual. Within a few minutes, my son began to talk. He began to tell me things that I had been trying to get him to tell me using my best listening skills. He talked in a way he never had before. He told me about school, about relationships with boys and girls, about his teachers, about his confusions, about his dreams and hopes for himself, about his feelings about his father and his brother. He talked about religion, his grandparents, life and death, his fears. All this happened on the 30 minute drive to the mall, continued as we paced up and down the mall (he was not interested in shopping that night, or even in ice cream), continued as we drove home and when we pulled into our driveway he said “don’t get out yet!” and we sat another 45 minutes in the car as he continued to pour out his deepest thoughts and feelings.

I was quite humbled from the experience. I have thought about it many times in the 10 years since. Something happened that night that enabled my son to feel safer than he had ever felt before and I suspect that it was because the “conversation” was on his terms. He was able to reveal himself to me without my well-intentioned encouragement, direction, advice and curiosity. Sometimes I remember this little scenario when I am struggling to communicate with someone. A voice inside says, “Just be silent!” Often, if I can quiet myself and listen (no easy task) the results are that I feel more understanding and subsequently, more understood.

Recently I watched my son at a celebration for my mother’s 80th birthday. He gave his devoted attention to his grandmother, listening carefully and with delight to her stories, advice and wisdom, and showing his affection for her in a relaxed and compassionate way. What a joy to see one’s children value kindness and attention!

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