3 ways to just let another person's story be, without trying to fix it.
I received an outpouring of feedback on my recent blog, “What We Really Want and Almost Never Get,” about the profound importance of listening in relationships. The comments confirm that what men and women alike most desire in our relationships is to be heard without judgment and understood where we are. So many have poignantly voiced their longing to be known—not fixed (even for the "better"), not interpreted, and not changed—but just allowed to be. It is clear that human beings share a craving for the full attention and presence of another person, specifically one who can listen without defending, blaming, or arguing about who is right and wrong.
I also received a number of responses about the difficulties that arise when trying to listen in the manner we crave. Some readers reported feeling like a doormat, abused, when they listened openly and without defending themselves, as their partner or friends spoke about matters that felt damaging to their own identity, and also untrue. And the question arose: What good could come from listening (and acknowledging) another’s experience that you know is untrue or perhaps caused by something they are not acknowledging?
These are important questions, and precisely what makes true listening such a challenge.
For years I had a dear friend who always talked to me about who had abandoned and mistreated her. What she never included in the dialogue was what she had done to create or contribute to these fractured relationships, some of whom were with people I also cared about, whose “story” of my friend’s behavior I also knew. When I listened to my friend openly and acknowledged her where she was, I felt as if I was supporting an aspect of her that was damaging not just to the way I felt about her, but also to her own ability to build different and more lasting relationships going forward.
Just listening to her, without correcting her view or telling her what was “true,” made me feel as if I was supporting her belief that she was the victim, and contributing to her inability to take responsibility for what she was creating in her relationships. I believed that her refusal to take ownership for her own behavior by playing the victim was unhealthy and unlikable, and precisely what kept her so unhappy and stuck. And while I wasn’t aware at the time, some part of me also believed that it was my responsibility to change her into someone who could do relationships differently; I wanted that for her. And so for years I essentially rejected my friend’s experience, refused to listen to her empathically, and “educated” her on her responsibility in these broken relationships—why it wasn’t just about what others had done to her but also about what she was doing. And truly, I thought that by doing so I was helping her change for the better—so that she could ultimately have a different experience of life. Also, in attempting to correct her experience, I was trying to hold onto a relationship that felt authentic to me, one in which my truth was also being voiced, not just hers.
My friend has since passed away and I miss her. I also know that I never really gave her what she needed, which was someone who cared about her enough to hold a non-judgmental space for the way she experienced her life, regardless of what I thought about it or whether it was the way she “should” experience it. Interestingly, all my educating, correcting, and, to some degree, blaming, never really made a difference in how she experienced her life. Knowing that her experience of being victimized was wrong, or at least caused by her, never made her feel any less rejected. If anything, it only added to it, as I was also rejecting her through my interpretations and well-intentioned self-improvement plans.
Sometimes I wonder: Had I been able to listen compassionately and not judge my friend for feeling victimized, would she have felt supported enough, or loved enough, to look at her own behavior? I’ll never know the answer, but what I do know is that endlessly trying to correct her experience into something I considered “true” did not give her what she needed to change.
In a smaller example, I now have a friend who is always complaining that the world is a terrible place. It’s his experience. I hate that aspect of him, and hate hearing about all the terrible things that have happened and are to come. I am a fundamentally optimistic person, and I suppose have some investment in that aspect of myself, as it keeps me feeling safe. So when I really listen to him about how the world is doomed, and simply let his experience be, without trying to convince him of something different, it can feel like I am supporting an aspect of him that I don’t enjoy, and that feels threatening to my own wellbeing. Listening without changing is no small affair, even when it is about a small affair. It is excruciatingly difficult to just listen and not try to change in situations where what we are loving through our compassionate presence is threatening to our own identity and/or the relationship itself.
The three biggest obstacles to deep listening:
- We believe that truly listening to another’s experience, letting it be without interjecting our opinion or trying to change it, is the same as acknowledging that their experience is true—and not just true for them, but in a universal sense.
- We listen not for how the other’s experience is for them, but rather for what their experience means about who we are, and how we are perceived.
- We believe that we need to change or control the other’s experience in order to maintain our own identity.
If you aspire to become a better listener, or to create more intimacy in your life, try the following practices:
- Try on the idea that acknowledging another’s experience does not mean that you share their experience, nor that you consider their experience to be universally true. You might play with phrases like, “I hear that it’s like that for you,” or, "The experience you are having sounds…” This allows you to set boundaries between your experience and theirs, and between what’s true for everyone and what they are feeling.
- Set the intention to listen to the other without you in the way. Drop the lens of what their experience means to or about you. Set aside your opinions about their experience as you listen. Intend to simply understand what the other is experiencing.
- Give yourself permission to “just” listen, and not do anything with what you are hearing. Set the goal to not change the other person in any way. Approach the communication as an opportunity to simply be curious and meet that person, where they are, with the aspiration to specifically not improve their experience or make them into someone else (more like you).
Listening deeply doesn’t just benefit the one being heard; it is also profoundly nourishing to the one who's listening. Listening creates a circle in which two separate egos can dissolve into one love. When we can truly listen, we can truly love. And we can only feel loved to the degree that we feel listened to. If you want more and deeper love in your life, aspire to listen better, and then practice.