Be curious when you are listening.
52 little practices for a year of big change.
"I hate you!"
We were driving toward school, arguing about how he would get home from school that day, when my son yelled at me, “I hate you!” Perhaps it was years in the making. But when he said those three words to me, something in me changed. Suddenly I heard something different than I had ever heard before.
Up until that day if I heard a message like “I hate you” from my son, a flurry of thoughts and feelings would overwhelm me. I would translate those words into “You are a failure as a mother and consequently a horrible human being. The most important thing in your life and you have ruined it. You are worthless.” Yeah - I would go there, or at least in that direction. Notice that my thoughts would go personal. I made my son’s words about me. I directed my attention on me, rather than him. I felt guilt, shame, and hopelessness.
Other thoughts would emerge out of my shame, thoughts directed at my son, “You have no idea what I have done for you. You’re selfish.” These thoughts would trigger resentment, anger and frustration. Then there were more thoughts about him, “What if he’s always angry? What if he never finds happiness?” These thoughts would trigger fear. So many thoughts. So many feelings. It was overwhelming. My response to my son when I was in this place of overwhelm was never helpful. I might fight back. I might completely withdraw. Either way we would inevitably part hurt and disconnected.
Until this day.
I took a breath
Suddenly I was able to take a slow, intentional breath when I heard those words. With that breath, I heard something different. I didn’t hear my fears or my doubts. I heard his.
In his three words, “I hate you” I heard so much. I heard, “I want to decide for myself. I don’t want to need you. But I know I still do. It scares me. Can I trust you? I don’t want to be dependent on you. And yet I do. I’m so confused. I want freedom. I want choice. I want control. I’m afraid to do it on my own. I want you to trust me. I want to trust myself. I want you to respect me. I want to respect myself”
Hearing all this in those 3 words made all the difference.
I had no anger, no resentment, no guilt, no shame, no fear, no hopelessness. Instead I felt love, compassion, tenderness and hope. As I sat there in the car with my son, I stayed silent. I didn’t fight back. Instead I sat breathing, thinking, feeling. “Of course this intelligent, capable, creative, hard working young man wants confidence, freedom, choice, trust and respect. This isn’t about me. It’s about him. It’s about what he needs to respect and trust himself. I remember being angry at the adults and the decisions they made for me and the things they did to me. I remember the struggle of being dependent, wanting independence, but also being afraid of losing the love and the support of my family. It’s a hard place to be. I can understand his frustration. And his fear.”
I think my son was dumbfounded by my silence. It wasn’t a cold silence. I was relaxed, breathing and softening. I can still feel it. I was almost giddy as my heart opened. I had to restrain myself from turning to my son smiling, laughing, hugging him and celebrating with him this shift in me.
I turned to him and said, ``Does it seem to you like I’m not hearing you?”
Our conversation continued something like this:
“Yeah, you never listen. You just tell me what to do.”
“I bet you wish I listened to you. I bet you really want me to trust you.”
“Yes! Of course I do. You think you know what’s best for me. You don’t think I can handle this. But I can. You have to trust me. I can handle this on my own.”
“So you’d really like me to trust you and let you make this decision.”
I could feel his body relaxing in the seat next to me. His voice softening. His breathing coming back to normal.
I said, “I get worried. You matter so much. I’m a mom. Sometimes I don’t know what the best way to care for you is. It changes as you get older. I know it can be hard for you as I figure that out. I just want to know you are ok. Is there something you could do, or some way to support me today so that I know you are getting home ok after school?” He responded, “I’ll call you mom. I promise I’ll get home safely and I’ll tell you how I am getting home before I leave school. Please trust me.” I took a breath, decided that this was an important gift to give him, myself and our relationship. “Ok, I trust you. Thanks for talking about it with me. I love you.”
That was that. He didn’t storm off when I dropped him off. He didn’t slam the door in silent fury. I thanked him for telling me what he needed. He thanked me for listening. We said goodbye. I think he went to school in peace. I know I went home in peace, my heart full of love for my son and full of compassion for both of us, our struggles with each other and our love for each other. I heard his needs, which gave him space to hear mine. We parted more connected rather than less. This was a shift for us.
Here is the practice I offer you. Listen beyond the words and actions of others. Listen for the underlying needs. Open your heart and your mind to the possibility that every person, in every situation is doing their best to survive and to thrive.
When we are triggered by an experience, intense emotions are ignited: anger/rage, fear/terror, embarrassment/shame, happiness/ecstasy. If we don’t catch these triggers immediately, we may REACT by running away from or running toward those emotions without the benefit of our logical brains. The strategies we choose when we are in this state are often ineffective and inefficient at best, harmful and destructive at worst.
Triggers can be short and intense, like a dog barking and bearing its teeth. They can be chronic and insidious, like a man calling his female co-worker “honey”. Either way, when a person reacts to them they often do so without their best judgement in play. These are times when hearing, seeing and acknowledging the needs underlying another's actions can be the most powerful. These are times when you can choose a path that will make all the difference for them, for you, and for your shared relationship.
Although this practice is powerful when applied to triggering moments. It’s also powerful when used in little moments, with little behaviors and words, throughout your day. It is a tool for deepening connection, peace and understanding in your relationships with others and with yourself.
GET STARTED WITH THE PRACTICE:
Every day for the next week, at least once a day, notice and get curious about the actions or words of another. Get specific. For example, you notice someone you live with didn’t make their bed in the morning. Consider what needs they might be attempting to meet by “leaving their bed unmade”. Perhaps this is a strategy for joy, for comfort, for freedom, for respect, for play…it could be so many things! You might also choose to do this at the end of the day, remembering something someone did or said, that you would like to have more understanding around. Use the provided needs list to help.
TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL (if you like):
At least once this week, when you notice yourself judging another person's actions or words as good or bad, right or wrong, ask them about it with open and curious words, for example: “What matters most to you about this (this being what they just did or said?”, “This seems important to you. What is most important?”. Listen for the underlying needs as they share with you.
Side note, you may not be aware of your judgments of good or bad. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. They are. If you aren’t aware of them, look for feelings of comfort or discomfort. When you have a feeling such as irritation, frustration, discomfort, sadness, numbness, confusion, etc…chances are you have made a judgement or badness or wrongness.Conversely, when you have a feeling such as happiness, joy, peace, relaxation, hope, etc… chances are you have made a judgement of goodness or rightness.
Let me know what you think!