Looking South East from Hilltop Farm, Gladstone South Australia

Empathy

Listening to my wife when life is being hard to her is damned hard work.  To begin with, there is an awful lot to listen to! Secondly, I'm not good at listening.  As a bloke I grew up understanding that listening was to gain information to do something about a situation, or to put a person right.  So when I listen to her, what I want to do is tell her what to do to fix the situation, or where she is wrong. My brain is so habituated into this it is nearly a case of hard wiring!

But this, I have been told a million times, is not listening.  She doesn't want answers or suggestions, she wants me to listen.  It is not listening when I take the first thing she says and work out how to respond... and do not listen to the rest, so that I can win the argument, or sort her out, or even help her!

The woman I live with mostly does not want answers.  She wants the comfort of knowing that I care enough simply to give her my time by paying attention... by listening.  So I sit and listen.  I can do it for hours.  But listening, I discover, needs to be active.  You don't just listen... I'm good at that... I spent half my life listening to lectures and sermons... you have to let the person know you are listening.  You have to engage with them.  Active listening, it's called.

And I can't do  it right.  Either I say too much, or too little, or I get enthused by what she is saying and start talking about stuff she doesn't want to hear.  Or I get threatened by it, and become defensive, or I get fascinated by the stuff she is saying and want to ask questions.  It seems like I can never quite make the right kind of response that she needs.  It sounds kind of funny when life is basically OK, but at the time you can end up wondering if the torture will ever end.

On the part of the mud map where we live there is a woman who is highly intelligent and yet feels the world. She kind of feels her way through it and marshals and interprets those feelings with awesome skill. The bloke, me, is a rationalist who lives in his head.  After he has worked out the sensible thing to do, he may spend some time deciding why he had some of the feelings he had!  It is a potent and flammable mix. She gets angry and is flamboyant, he is quiet and doesn't like scenes.  So as we draw our mud map, and I try and relate to her, we have a host of issues that will be different to the issues faced by many other readers who face the creeks and ridges of their own situations.  Yet there are some constants, I think.

Firstly, listening is important.  It is the ultimate respect.  If we do not listen then we have either degraded a person to less important than human, or we have drifted into a prideful superiority and paternalism.  Neither direction respects what we have said in Relating With Women.  Indeed the very essence of compassion is the respect of listening. There is no respect if I do not listen.

Ultimately, listening is not the action of allowing a person to speak un-interrupted.  That is the barest beginning.  Listening is to be compassionate.  It is to empathise... to feel with the speaker. It is when I allow myself to feel with my partner what she is feeling, that I have truly begun to listen.  To begin with, I have truly heard what she is saying, rather than assuming there is a problem she wants me to solve. Secondly, I have a chance of understanding her feelings, because I have let them become mine.  It is for this reason above all that I think listening is of the essence in surviving and loving and thriving with the woman who is our partner.  It begins to allows us to feel her feelings.  It begins to let us "understand" and to truly have compassion.

Blokes think understand means to see the structure of a problem and then solve it.  To have mastery over it.  But under-stand means to stand-under... to be instructed by.  Only when we stand under our partners feelings and are instructed by them and are subject to them, will we feel them and know them and be able to listen.  Then we have a chance of being some help, or some friend, to her in a time of need.

July 12 2001


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