“Are you listening or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?”
When I hear people complain about a spouse’s lack of backbone and initiative, describing their loved one as a person who lets others walk all over him or her, otherwise known as a doormat, or in Yiddish, a “schmatta,” I halt them in mid-rant with this observation: “Ok, I get it. But then I guess that makes you Mrs. (or Mr.) Schmatta. There now – do you feel better?” I enjoy seeing the dawn of understanding in their eyes when they realize that when they put down their spouses, they indict themselves as well. Most of the times people are not malicious, and they may genuinely feel that to correct the shortcomings of others, and to put them in their rightful place, is simply being helpful, kind, or responsible. In other words, it’s the loving thing to do.
Shame, however, whether inwardly directed or outwardly projected – is never a catalyst for growth, change or transformation. How then, can we avoid shaming people with whom we have a bona fide disagreement? How do we prevent the trap of the position-based power struggle? And how can we communicate with others when the topic of conversation is in the red zone, meaning it’s sure to set off emotional triggers, resulting in anger and defensiveness, or its opposite, which is withdrawal and stonewalling? Borrowing the words from the title of Adele Farber’s famous book, how do we talk so that people will listen and listen so that people will talk?
Listening With No Ego
The Torah portion, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” is always read before the holiday of Shavuot, which is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The best state in which to receive Torah is when we make of ourselves a desert, meaning that we nullify our egos, enter into a state of total humility and create the internal space to take it in. As Marianne Williamson says, “When the ego steps back, the power of God steps forward.”
Being able to access this state is a prerequisite for handling tense conversations and emerging through conflict with a higher state of awareness and connection. There are any number of constructs for active listening. My favorite, “Imago Dialogue,” was created by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. In a nutshell, the listener has to be able to mirror back when the speaker has said – sentence by sentence and then check in that they have repeated the words accurately, followed by a genuine expression of empathy or compassion for the point of view that was just expressed. The beauty of this model is that for the listener to be able to do that, the listener has to tune out all of their internal thoughts that would otherwise be flooding their minds with counter-arguments, defenses, shifting the conversation to themselves, and other ways of blocking what the speaker is saying. Just like you can’t have simultaneous live conversations, you can’t truly listen to another person as well as the voice in your head at the same time.
When you listen with deep presence, attention, and curiosity, sometimes it’s enough for the argument to subside, in that the other person simply wanted the opportunity to be heard without interruption or invalidation. Other times, you can hear – finally – what the other person has been trying to communicate in vain for years and you can have a whole new perspective.
For example, for years, my husband and I would have a big upset over our different perceptions of time, and how early or late we should arrive at events, like a wedding. I make the assumption (which is true) that no wedding ceremony ever happens at the time stated on the invitation. I also am fine with arriving moments before the couple makes it down the aisle. My husband, on the other hand, would prefer to arrive at an event early – possibly before the caterer even showed up. For years, I brushed off his complaints:
“I like to get there early and talk to our friends.”
“But you see them pretty much every week anyway, so what’s the big deal?”
“But I like to get there for the smorg.”
“That’s just a lot of unnecessary calories, on top of a fattening dinner and dessert. Do you really need it?” Etc. Etc.
One day, we sat down to have a conversation about this conflict and we used the technique of active listening and mirroring, and for the first time, I actually heard what my husband was trying to tell me. By being curious and listening without preconditions, I didn’t reactively defend against what I had perceived to be a control issue. I was open to seeing what a reasonable request it was to drive to an event leisurely and then enjoy all of the varieties of experience and connection and fun that are part of a joyful wedding. I was also able to see how being on time could be an expression of personal integrity and even more important, showing love and respect to the people who had invited us.
Talking With Appropriate Ego
The first line of Bamidbar ends with God’s command to Moses to take a census. Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that God loves us and counts us, just like we like to count our prized possessions. So, on one hand, to receive Torah, we should be lowly, like the shifting sand of a barren desert. But on the other hand, each soul is a precious and unique possession and we are tasked with striving for actualization as well as being a light unto nations. For that to occur, we must live Torah, that is, to stand tall and be counted and know who we are.
If you continue to express an issue in a relationship, you can assume that it is based on experiencing an unmet need – and, as radical as this may seem, all unmet needs are valid issues. It is simply not acceptable for others to summarily dismiss your needs and concerns as invalid, and you don’t have to justify or argue why you have the feelings that you have.
But you do need to recognize that your needs and feelings are not universal. They are not the objective truth from on high. Therefore, take responsibility for unmet needs as being your issue, and don’t automatically make the other person wrong for not meeting your unmet need. Once you make your issue about you – and not the other person – you are able to communicate in a clear and powerful way. You can describe events and facts such as, “You were really late coming home,” versus being critical: “You’re such an inconsiderate jerk for being late.” And then you can explain exactly why you are upset (because the surprise dinner you had made is now ruined). And now you can make reasonable requests about how your partner can meet your need for certainty around the time of arrival. Since only you truly know what would satisfy your unmet need, you need to ask for what you want. And now you and the other person can be creative about finding solutions that work for you both. Making space for another’s reality while also being able to stand up for your own self is a never-ending dance of give and take, that when done with love and respect, can create an unbreakable bond of love, connection, and joy.
 Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So That Kids will Listen and Listen So That Kids Will Talk, (NY: Simon and Schuster 1980).