Can You Hear Me Now???

Listening has been on my mind lately- specifically I've been wondering if we have lost the ability to truly listen to others.  Do we remember how to listen to someone carefully for understanding and without predetermination?  We all want to be, but also need to be listened to.  It is a basic human desire to be heard and understood. And when we do not feel like we are being heard, what happens? We tend to make our point louder and more forcefully, or we shut down completely.  Neither action is helpful if we are to communicate with each other effectively. This pattern seems to happen more each day and it concerns me.

A few weeks ago I witnessed something that very clearly illustrated this problem. While getting gas, I noticed a woman drive up to the air compressor to put air in her tires.  As I watched her put her money in the air pump, I thought to myself how frustrating it was that gas stations charge for air.  A few moments later, she walked up to the employee who was pumping my gas (NJ perk :-)) and told him that she was having problems with the air.  She said she put money into the machine, but could not get air to come out.  She was concerned that they may be a problem.  The employee immediately responded that she should put more money in and try again. She was confused by his response and told him again that she was concerned that there was a problem with the pump.  He continued to insist that there was not a problem with the pump and that she should put more money in. After a few back and forths, it became clear that he thought she was trying to scam him and had not paid for the air.  At that point, I jumped in to let him know that I saw her pay and had watched her put the money in.  It did not matter, he continued to stick to his point and she continued to get more and more frustrated. Tempers flared and voices raised.

 "I don't understand, you aren't listening to me!  Why would I put more money in a pump that just took my money? What kind of customer service is this? I just need to get some air!"

She was right, he was not listening to her. He was not hearing what she was saying.  He was not trying to solve the problem.  He had already decided that she was trying to scam him and nothing she could say would change his mind. How frustrating! Although I had to drive away before I could hear the conclusion, I would bet that she left without resolution.  

This experience has stayed with me.  I could feel her frustration. My heart rate increased, my face felt hot.  I also saw it as indicative of a bigger problem.  It seems like we aren't doing a very good job of listening to each other anymore. Have you been in a situation like this where you felt like someone was not listening to you? Sure, they may have heard the words, but they were not acknowledging the meaning behind them.  

Why is this such a problem? A few thoughts:

We are in a hurry, so we don't take the time to really listen.  
We quickly determine what we think the person is saying. 
We just as quickly decide if we think they are right or wrong. 
We don't take time to truly consider new information or opinions.
We focus so much on our comeback that we miss the subtleties of what the person is saying. 
We want to figure out who to blame or how to fix it, but not acknowledge the feelings. 
We have a hard time being empathetic if it is not something we have personally experienced.  
We just don't want to listen :-(.

I think about how differently the exchange at the gas station would have gone if the attendant had really listened.  What if he had said, "It sounds like there is a problem. Let me take a look. Maybe I can help." She would have felt heard and respected and understood, and most importantly, helped! If he had responded with empathy, she would not have raised her voice.  She wouldn't have needed to.  

There are lessons to be learned from this exchange.
We aren't listening to each other.  
We just keep getting louder and more over the top trying to make our point and trying to be heard.
We need to do better both in person and online. 

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that listening is always easier when interacting with someone who is speaking responsibly (although that may not always be the case).  We must speak with honesty and respect.  We have to remember that words have significant power and their echoes continue long after the words leave our mouths. We must speak with gentleness, free of insults and judgment that can stop us from hearing differing thoughts or opinions.  Each of us can continue to learn and grow from each other's perspectives.  We won't always agree, but listening with understanding can bring us closer.  We can't help each other if we don't understand each other. 

More listening, less talking.  
More listening, less arguing.  
More listening, less responding.  
More listening, more understanding. 

Join me in trying to be a better listener.  Here are a few tips to get started:

The Great Exhale

Seven weeks ago we drove our youngest daughter back to Ohio State for her sophomore year.  Seven weeks have passed since we combined all that she brought back with her at the end of freshman year, plus all that she accumulated over the summer, plus all the new things she thought she'd need and tried to develop a plan for finding a place for it in her new room. Seven weeks have gone by since we aggressively packed the van with ALL OF THE THINGS hoping, but not quite believing, that everything would fit.  Seven weeks since we unloaded all of her stuff in the rain, helped to get her settled, and then said a quick and slightly awkward goodbye on the street outside of her sorority. It is not the same sadness as last year, but it still doesn't feel natural.

 Once we returned home, I felt the house let out a great exhale. It seemed to be relieved to be free of the boxes, bags, and bins that had been increasingly cluttering the house and weighing it down. As I went to work cleaning up the remains of the packing and doing the kind of room cleaning that is only possible when said daughter is not around, I sighed. The house was finally clean and quiet, order restored. But in that great exhalation of the house, it breathed out more than the clutter- it also breathed out some of the life and light and laughter.  It is emptier in ways big and small.

In each week that passes, I feel the house exhale a little more.  In a quiet but steady hiss of breath, I can feel the passing of time, the release of more life.  I bag up the clothes my daughter left behind to donate.  In the pile, I see the Hershey's sweatshirt that was her favorite souvenir from our trip to NYC right before we moved to NJ.  I tenderly fold up the outgrown t-shirts from our many family trips to Disney World.  I flinch when I see her high school cheer clothing in the pile.  Wasn't that one of the biggest things in her life not that long ago? I know she has moved on. Hiss...

I clean out the bathroom and am struck by the number of lotions and potions left behind.  I plan to throw out many of them thinking I will encounter the usual pile of dried out sparkly nail polish, Bath and Body Works lotions and gels, and various tubes of lip gloss; but instead, I am struck by the mature nature of what's left behind.  Shampoos specific to her hair type, face creams, a small fortune in "good" makeup.  I end up organizing more than I throw away.  These are adult things.  Hiss...

My husband and I spend a hard weekend cleaning out the garage and all of the many toys and games that once occupied the time and attention of our girls.  Scooters, basketballs, yard games, old signs for lemonade stands, bats, balls, riding gear, lacrosse sticks, sleds, snowboards. Much is given away, but I hold onto the bare essentials. I put them in a bin on the top shelf unsure that they will ever be used again but not quite ready to let them go.  Our garage transformed from the messy garage of people with children to the garage of adults- clean, organized, and somewhat less full of life. Hiss...

I go through my own closet with a new eye for what I will and won't be wearing.  I say goodbye to many clothes that represent a life that I am no longer living.  I say goodbye to the spirt t-shirts that I dutifully bought each year.  I sort through the pile of green and gold t-shirts and fondly remember the fun cheer trips to Disney. I part with much of the more structured clothing that went along with my more structured life. I see the dresses that I wore to the high school graduations of my girls and wonder if I will ever wear them again.  I suspect the answer is no, but I hold onto them for now.   My priority is moving to comfortable clothes that make me feel good and fit this new life I am creating.

We say goodbye to a car- our much-loved Mini Cooper convertible. I remember the promise we made of one day getting a convertible and the excitement when that day arrived.  I think about the sunny days when we would climb in and go for a drive to nowhere, anywhere, but usually, somewhere that ended in ice cream.  I remember driving away from the city lights on a warm summer night and seeing the stars so vividly that we pulled over to appreciate them and were rewarded with our very own shooting star.  I remember the cool air and bright sun of fall days when we would drive to enjoy the changing leaves then fight to keep the top down as the temperatures dropped and our bodies shivered.  I remember girls who used to fit comfortably in the small backseat asking to drive the car one last time. Hiss...

We try to plan a family trip for next summer and then realize it is impossible.  Our older daughter will be graduating from college in May and moving on to unknown horizons. I silently note that my husband and I were planning our wedding at that age and feel momentarily grateful for the uncertainty in her plans! Our younger one will be looking for an internship. Neither one of them knows for sure when or if they will be home next summer.  Hiss...

More life seems to flow out of the house than back in at this point. But, it doesn't feel sad exactly, it just feels like it is what it is meant to be.  Where last year there was sadness and even a little fear, now there is acceptance.  A reckoning is taking place- after years of moving fast, my inner life needs to catch up to the ever-changing outer life.   Now is time to reconcile the life I once had with the life I currently have.  It has changed dramatically and will continue to shift and move in ways both expected and not. Adapting is not optional.

Where our children once provided the life force in our home through their various activities, their lively friends, and their mere presence; now we will be responsible for creating a new life force. What we choose to bring into our home and what we choose to let go of will be up to us.  How I fill my days will ultimately become how I live the rest of my life. The opportunity to reinvent a life is both daunting and exciting.  While I will always be a mom first, now the time has come for me to also think about my own shelved dreams and desires for the future. Who knew I'd be trying to find myself again at 51!

These days I find myself sighing a lot.  It is not a sigh of frustration or sadness, but more a sigh of acceptance.  My deep exhalation is a way of releasing the old and making room for the new.   My daughter will be home soon for October break.  I will enjoy every minute with her and then I will put her on a plane back to her new life. I will wipe away a few tears and then I will return to my new life. The comings and goings.  The packing and unpacking.  The sweet hellos and the sad goodbyes. This is the new normal.

 The house will take a deep breath and exhale again and again. And so will I.

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