Jessica and I took an adventurous walk yesterday, trying to get better acquainted with our new surroundings. Having recently moved we are becoming adept explorers, letting curiosity be our guide as we try new things and experience new places.
About halfway down a tree-lined street nestled in the shadow of the mountains I noticed that what I thought were light colored leaves were actually puffy seed pods. We gently pulled a few of the velvety pods from a tree admiring the full bright green seeds ensconced within them. Upon further inspection we found some more mature seed pods drying out on the ground exposing seeds that were weathered, dry and dark. While the shiny bright beauty of the newly birthed seeds, protected in their green cocoons were what caught my attention, they were not the seeds that were primed to grow. As we peered closely at the ground and sifted through crackly brown casings that pulled away easily from the dry seeds I was reminded that nature usually seasons seeds over time as she prepares them for growth. Their potential cannot be rushed but rather nurtured, letting it develop intentionally over time. I think the same goes for children, relationships, ideas and experiences. It can be hard to wait patiently for something or someone because the process of change can seem laboriously long. But people are a lot like seeds and when the conditions are right and the seed is ready the resulting beauty is usually worth the wait.
Take Action: If you've already applied this post to your life thanks for reading, please come back soon!
If you need some help to take the leap from story to action, here you go:
Think for a minute about a relationship (family, romantic, friendship, etc) that you're in that has potential. Consider the beautiful things that could come from that relationship. Focus on one of those beautiful things and then think about one thing you could do today to support and work toward that potential. So if I want to cultivate a stronger relationship with my daughter so that she'll talk openly with me when she's a teenager, I will strengthen our connection today by listening intently to her 8 year old stories when she wants to tell them to me. By listening today I'm building a little pod around the seed that is our relationship, creating space for it to grow and change and become what it's meant to become. As always, I'd love to hear your epiphanies!
In love and nature,
In the late night hours during my year as a resident assistant, I would often find myself on the floor, or leaning against a wall, locked in a bedroom or curled up on a kitchen sofa, listening to my girls as they detailed their various struggles with homework, boys, roommates or family members. In hindsight, many of the stories represent efforts at growing into adults, something we were all working on at the time (and something I am STILL working on). At the time, I knew that my job was not to directly tell them what to do. My job was to listen. However, in my genuine desire for their well-being and in my exuberance to be be of some aid, I couldn’t help myself and I would ask questions intended to guide them to a certain conclusion. Basically I was trying to get them to see their problems through my perspective because sometimes the solution seemed so clear from where I sat. Over time, my listening eyes became trained enough that I could see where this approach led. Given enough of these loaded questions, the speaker would begin to fidget, look around and seek an escape route. The conversation would hastily come to a close and I would walk back to my room, heavy-hearted and shaking my head, completely confused at their inability to see the solution with the clarity I thought I’d offered.
It wasn’t until I had to explain my own therapy experiences to RJ that I was able to see how my understanding of listening had matured a bit. Rather than doling out sage advice or guiding with pointed questions, more often than not, I realized that my job with those residents was to help them know themselves, not as I saw them but as they were. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to see oneself clearly through a fog of trauma, conflict, or even just new ideas. It can be hard to pinpoint agitation or discontent without a safe place to empty one’s thoughts and sift through them. That is the job of a listener, to carefully receive the words of a speaker and then methodically sort through them in an effort to identify possible connections or make unbiased observations. I am grateful for the patience of those 58 residents who trusted a bit of their growth to me and patiently taught me how to listen.
(NOTE: My apologies if you read this the other day. I accidentally posted it out of order. It should make a bit more sense now :))
Posture. Leaning forward says “I’m invested in what you’re saying, I hear you.” Whereas leaning back can create an air of indifference. It doesn’t have to be an in-your-face forward listening posture, I’m all about respecting personal space. Even an inclined head can close the space between two people in an argument or conversation.
In certain situations, being mindful of body language also really helps me to focus on listening because it takes some extra concentration so I’m not as easily distracted. I may only be able to employ one or two of the body language cues, like making occasional eye contact while I’m slicing vegetables for dinner and leaning my head slightly forward as I listen to RJ weave tales of paving and asphalt glory (Note: this happens on the rare occasion that RJ is home when I am making dinner and our preschooler is occupied and our dog is not barking. It does feel a bit magical to have a decent conversation prior to 9 pm). It may seem like a lot of work at first, but over time it becomes second nature. Try one of these whole body listening cues out and let me know how it goes!
Arms. It is easy to fidget, twiddle or distract oneself with arms or hands, this is especially true if the subject matter you’re listening to is uncomfortable. It is also easy to convey a closed attitude by folding the arms across the chest . As I make the attempt to be a true sounding board for a friend or my spouse or my little one, I try to keep my arms open, maybe with my hands clasped loosely in front of me. My arms can also be at my sides. This says, “What you’re saying, it’s ok with me, I’m welcoming it.” I hear you, this sounds a bit crazy. Try it and see what happens.
As a resident assistant, I remember feeling carried away with fascination as our mentor taught us about the ways to say “I’m listening” with our manner and posture. I had always considered listening to be a task managed with ease by my ears and I was intrigued by the idea that it was a whole body endeavor. So, without further adieu I will relate to you the ways we can listen with our whole selves.
Eye Contact. Have you ever tried to talk to someone and maintain eye contact for more than a few seconds? It’s rare that people will hold your gaze for very long. I like to think that earnest regard can be conveyed through eyes willing to see the speaker, whether the person is 4 or 44. In the 14 years since I was taught this lesson, there have been technological advances (i.e. my iPhone) that have forced me to be intentional about trying to connect and listen with my eyes. I do that by seeking eye contact. Sometimes it takes looking at the side of someone’s head for a bit (because they’re looking at anything but me) but I keep offering it regardless. People say a lot of things with their eyes…have you noticed?
Tomorrow…Listening; with your arms.
1. Listen carefully. Be mindful of a (natural) tendency to suggest solutions to “fix” the problem. Also be aware of your own internal dialogue, try to separate any fear or anxiety you’re feeling from your response. Those feelings are important to acknowledge and process, and maybe even articulate, but it’s best if your responses aren’t unknowingly slathered in your own discomfort.
2. Don’t pity. Although there are those of us who feel the need to solicit pity, most of us want to be understood and offered empathy. It’s really hard to dig deep and find ways to relate and extend our own understanding (of the individual and the situation) if we’re busy feeling sorry for the person we’re talking with.
3. Be still. So often, in our efforts to sidle up next to someone and extend compassion or share our love, we desperately desire to DO SOMETHING. Sometimes actions are called for and very appropriate. Sometimes though, our dear ones just need us to be present and sit in the uncomfortable places they’re in without questioning how or when they’ll move out of them.
Bearing the burdens of mortality, alone or alongside someone dear to us, is hard work and the effort entails a lot of endurance but with some practice and patience, we can see a grace-full increase in our abilities to meaningfully care for those we love.