Thoughts on a Year of Listening

June 1, 2023

This month the project will celebrate its first birthday. This feels remarkable to me for two reasons: first, the fact that when the project began I thought it likely I’d sit once or twice, find there was no ‘there’ there, and call it a day; and second, for my simple wonder at the acceleration of time I experience as I age – weeks are a blur and even seasons seem to rush by as if they were wheeled and set on a fast track.

First, I want to thank the 300+ people who have joined me, for whatever reason(s), and shared their curiosity, opened themselves and their histories to me, and trusted me to hear them and – when asked – to help them think or feel through the problems or questions or confusions or decisions that they were walking with. I also want to thank the people who have taken the time to slow, or stop, and ponder the poster, and perhaps ask a question or make a comment.

About a month ago someone sat with me and at one point asked me if the project had helped me to become a better listener, which I note on the poster as one of the reasons I started the project. I told them that I thought it had. I told them that I had become more capable of listening/hearing without worrying about my own reactions or the welling up of my inner voice (so ready to make judgments) getting in the way of understanding what those joining me were attempting to impart.

I told them also that I thought that I had become more capable of understanding what those sitting with me needed. Sometimes that need is for absolute silence on my part; sometimes there is a need to have me reflect some affirmation; in some circumstances the person sitting with me wants comforting; and sometimes they want to hear my voice, they want to experience someone speaking out loud about their situation, ‘working the problem’ with them. Of course, sometimes I may never know or have any inkling of what they need. And if I think I do, I may be abjectly wrong, and they probably will be too polite to tell me.

I have learned that people must be given the time and freedom to get to those things that are essential to them. Many people have joined me and started asking questions about the project and such. And 10 or 15 minutes later I find out that they are alienated from their child or their sibling, or their parent died recently, or they are young and pursuing a career that does not fulfill them, or there is some other doubt or grief or pain that they are carrying. And sometimes I think that, through this process, people discover a simple joy in having a potentially meaningful, thoughtful, self-probing conversation with another human being. I had a joyful experience in the last week of spending a half an hour or so with a young person who came up to introduce themselves, declaring they had no idea what they would speak about. So, as the poster notes, I offered to ask them a question. I asked them to share with me, if they would, what gives them particular joy or happiness or fulfillment at this point in their life, and what if anything they worry about as they look forward in their life.

As this person spoke, I perceived a simple, wonderful thing, a kind of lightening or opening in them; a growing fluidity in their responses. By the time they had answered my questions it seemed that they weren’t ready to leave: they asked me if I had any more questions for them. And I did. When we were done, I could tell that this young person appeared to have found something or learned something that perhaps they hadn’t considered before, something about the beauty or connection or freedom of thinking out loud, and engaging in an open-ended dialogue with no parameters or constraints. And I think that has something to do with the power of these types of open-ended questions.

Ask yourself: When was the last time that someone posed to you, in complete earnestness and interest, the question: ‘How are you?’ And then made clear that they really wanted from you a meaningful, detailed, considered response, if you were interested in giving it? I see the creation of opportunities for this kind of listening as a huge potential gift we can give to one another, if we are willing to create such opportunities. Doing so really is just a matter of mindfulness, compassion, and time. I will continue to ask questions like these. I hope you’ll consider doing the same for those people you care about, and for those you would like to get to know.

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