“Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey.
When I was a child, I lived two lives. The first in the daytime, a life of, “Good Morning, rise and shine! It’s time to get up! Bacon and eggs and pancakes downstairs! Who can get dressed first?” The second life I lived in the dark, at night, or more specifically just before dawn, when my father would come disguised as a shadow and cover me with his naked self and do what he wanted while I pretended to sleep.
This secret life burned inside me to be told. I tried to tell my mother, but she wouldn’t listen.
“Daddy is different in the darkness,” I told her.
But she was intent on stopping my mouth. “Your father is a good man,” she told me, “and any word against him will be punished,” she said as she dragged me to the sink and filled my mouth with soap.
“He puts things inside me too!” I tried to tell her, but she didn’t let me finish. Her hand slapped hard against my cheek.
“Don’t speak with your mouth full!” ”But — “ She sent me to my room for my refusal to be silent. We repeated this scenario with slight variations until I learned silence. My body spoke. I became sick frequently and missed most of kindergarten because of the fevers, ear infections and strep. At home I was considered a liar and a hypochondriac and ignored most of the time.
We humans have many different ways of coping, and I decided that nothing that happened at night mattered; I put it out of my mind completely so that I could function during the daytime. I forgot it was happening, and when it finally stopped, I forgot it ever happened.
As an adult I have had many challenges, having grown up with so much trauma. I couldn’t listen to anyone or find my way out of my own head for many years. I sought professional help, but most of the therapists I worked with did not listen very well either, despite all their training.
I wrote poems and plays about incest and abuse and my writing became therapy. Still I was not heard or questioned or understood. When I was upset by Anne Sexton’s biography (but couldn’t articulate why), the therapist took it from me.
“If it’s upsetting you, I’ll take it, and you won’t feel so upset!”
When 9/11 happened, I decided to volunteer to help in some meaningful capacity somewhere in New York City (where I live), and I found an opportunity at the Help Line, a suicide-prevention phone service. I was trained in “Active Listening” for six months before I was allowed to answer their phones. This form of listening forces the listener to really listen before responding. Any response must reflect what the speaker might be feeling. The only way to understand a speaker’s emotional life is to listen.
As I practiced in their classes for volunteers, I became better able to listen to others, and I could also begin to listen to myself. I began to understand what I was feeling. I learned that reflecting back what someone is trying to say is a way to connect with that person. I was becoming a mirror for people, to help them see themselves. I was able to make a difference in people’s lives. All of my relationships changed for the better after this.
Now I work as a drama teacher, which is a listening profession. I listen to plays and playwrights and offer feedback based on what I hear. I also write my own plays with great awareness of the audience.
If we are not taught to listen with the intent to understand, then we are only hearing, because our ears are open to every sound. Listening is more than that. There is an art to listening. If done properly, with the right intent, it’s as if the listener has opened a door to the speaker’s heart. A real listener focuses on the speaker, forgetting themselves in the moment. Listening involves risk. Who knows what we might encounter if we decide to listen with the intent to discover?