Thanks, everyone, for your patience these past couple of months. My mother passed away in December and it’s taken me a while to get back into regular life, much less this blog.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned this last year, it’s that most of our problems revolve around a basic—but devastating—assumption: when things fall apart, our upset can almost always be traced back to the underlying feeling that we’re not being seen or heard. That we don’t matter.
Let me give you some examples. Say I’m trying to tell my spouse about my day, but he’s busy checking his phone and isn’t paying attention. Or I’m chasing after my kid, trying to get him to do his homework but he’s absconded with the iPad and can’t seem to hear me. Or you’ve just gotten home from running errands for your wife, but instead of thanking you, here she is, at your throat, complaining that you didn’t get the right kind of bread, now did you.
Well, if you’re like me, pretty soon you’re going to start feeling pretty darn small and grumpy. Somewhere inside you, an evil little voice starts saying stuff like: your kid’s not listening. He doesn’t respect you. Your husband’s phone is more important than you are. No one’s listening to you. You don’t matter.
Hey, I get it. The truth is, almost every single time I get mad at Ken, somewhere inside me is an awful, yucky little feeling that I don’t matter. And you know what? Every time I piss Ken off, I’m pretty sure that it’s because my actions are screaming the exact same thing, telling him that he doesn’t matter.
So what do we do about it?
Simple. We put down our phones/work/to-do list/whatever else is jamming up our brain and we listen. We take a good hard look at the person standing in front of us and we give them our full, undivided attention. That’s right. Just listen, without interrupting, without trying to solve their problems and without thinking about what we’re going to say next.
Which is harder than it should be in our crazy-busy worlds. We get so distracted by work, by to-dos, by everything else we shoulda, woulda done that by the end of the day the thing that’s missing in most of our lives is connection. Real, live, deep connection.
But here’s the thing: connection is also the most important thing in our lives. Take anyone who’s facing a terminal disease or who’s survived some kind of life-altering event and ask them what’s most important, where they wish they’d spent more of their time and attention. Does anyone ever say work? Nope. At the end, when we’re facing that giant divider of death, love is always at the top of the list. As are our relationships with our spouse, our children and our friends.
And yet these are often the very things that get put aside during daily life, moved to the back burner for when there’s more time, when work eases up, when the stars align, etc, etc, etc.
This is where listening, real listening, comes in. If you do nothing else to change your relationship, take 5 minutes out of your day today to be present–fully present–with your spouse. Yes, that’s right—just 5 minutes. Five minutes of your undivided attention, with your actions telling this person that yes, you see them, yes, you hear them. Yes, they matter.
Then, if you’re feeling super-motivated, try doing it with your kids. Or your co-workers, or your friends.
The truth is, so many of us go through our day feeling like nobody’s truly seen or heard us. Especially at work. Especially at home.
(By the way, if you’re having a tough time with your kids, check out Howard Glasser’s All Children Flourishing–Igniting the Greatness of Our Children for a fuller explanation of how to apply this technique to a “problem” child.)
I used to think that I was the only one who would get frozen by this problem, stuck in the feeling that I didn’t matter. But over the last few months, I’ve come to realize that everyone—and I mean everyone—suffers at times from the feeling that they’re not being seen or heard. It might come out at work, it might come out at home, it might come out in a particular friendship, but somewhere along the way, we all find ourselves struggling with the feeling that we don’t matter.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what your socioeconomic status is or where you live–if you’re living and breathing, you’re going to bump up against this feeling at some point. In fact, when my mother was dying, I found this feeling popping up over and over again, with everyone I encountered–nurses, doctors or administrators. Then, when I started to find it popping up in them, I started acting differently. Instead of my usual argumentative approach when things got difficult (which always backfired, by the way), I started backing off, telling myself that I was going to just listen to this person for a few minutes before I said anything. Just listen.
What I found was this: the most difficult interactions quickly settled down, almost as if by magic. If I could go in with my ears wide open (instead of itching to prove I was right), and honor who that person was and what they needed to say before I said what I needed, our interactions went much more smoothly.
Let me give you an example. One afternoon, I had to have a meeting with a guy I didn’t particularly like. Something about this guy bugged me on a deep level and I often went into our meetings closed up and ready to fight. But on this particular day, we desperately needed to make some progress, so I went into our meeting determined to do things differently. For the first 10 minutes, I sat back and listened. It was hard to do, because I didn’t agree with half of what he was saying, but I shut my mouth and did my best to keep breathing. Just breathing. I did my best to let go of my expectations, with the knowledge that there would be room for me when he was done.
And there was. Once he was done talking, he’d visibly relaxed, and I was able to calmly tell him where I was coming from and what I needed out of our meeting. For perhaps the first time, we were really listening to each other and talking, and as a result of that, we were able to compromise in a way we’d never been able to before.
I don’t think this would have happened if we hadn’t both felt there was enough room for us both to be seen and heard.
Think about it: when you find yourself arguing with someone, how much of it comes down to just wanting to be seen and heard?
- Someone cuts you off on the street. Fucker! How come he didn’t see me coming?
- The cashier shortchanges you a dollar. How come this always happens to me?
- Your mother drives you crazy with her constant criticizing. Why can’t she see all the good things about me? Why can’t she see who I really am?
- Your boss asks for your feedback, then ignores it. Asshole! He always thinks he’s better than me!
- Your wife always talks over you at dinner. What a jerk. Why isn’t there room for me?
And then there’s that friend who’s always emailing with a problem; your mother, who’s always calling to tell you something inane; or your mother-in-law, who’s always agitating to get your attention. What do they all have in common? Simple: they all want to matter; they all want to be seen and heard.
Last week, I watched Brene Brown (my new favorite person) interviewed on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday and heard Oprah confirm my theory. In all her years of interviewing, she said, the one thing she’s learned is that everyone wants to be seen and heard. Everyone wants to matter.
Everyone. Your boss, your neighbor, your husband, your child, your mother.