Listening is a Skill, not an Instinct #LifeGoals

After our 2016 Presidential election, my newsletter inbox, my Facebook and Twitter feed, and my own discussions with friends and family have become filled with an impassioned call to action:


And it goes without saying that I find this trend affirming, both of our own love for our country and for the people who inhabit it. Given the division evidenced in the results of the 2016 election, it’s clear that half of our country is in disagreement with the other half.


If we are to remain united, as I believe the majority of Americans wish for, the path forward requires that we stop talking and start listening. If we are to understand the other half of Americans who hold views potentially very distinct from our own, listening is essential. Ralph Nader’s father wisely taught him an important adage (as described in his excellent book, The Seventeen Traditions):

How Do You Learn? By Listening.

The Seventeen Traditions: Lessons from an American Childhood by [Nader, Ralph]

What this lesson implies as well is that we cannot learn while we are talking. We can teach, certainly, but learning is an act that requires thought and contemplation, both of which are difficult to achieve while verbalizing our own ideas. And I believe that Americans, with our diversity of views, experiences, and life paths, have much to learn from each other.

Despite the importance of this message–to listen to one another–I feel another component is missing. As various avenues of our public and private spheres tell us to listen, there is really no communication of HOW we are suddenly to find ourselves openly and respectfully listening to each other. For anyone who has ever argued with someone in a passionate disagreement (i.e., anyone who’s ever been in a relationship, romantic, familial, or otherwise!), we know how difficult it can be to listen to someone whose own ideas conflict so much with our own.

Our body reacts strongly to this conflict–our blood pressure rises, blood rushes to the muscles of our limbs, our own capacity to articulate ourselves clearly might decline, our thinking becomes jumbled and rational thought becomes more challenging. Not the best bed fellows for thoughtful discussion and opinion-sharing!

Listening is a skill, not an instinct. And like any skill, it must be built and strengthened over time. As we embark on our own journey as a country into the next Presidential term, there is one powerful technique I feel we can do to strengthen our listening muscles such that we are better able to hear our opponents, to acknowledge their ideas, and to learn from each other.

My recommendation comes out of my own training as a developmental psychologist, as a teacher of exceptional young men and women at Penn State, as a mother of three teenagers, as a partner to my husband.

Be like Mr. Rogers (Carl, that is)

Carl Rogers was a pioneer in the field of ‘talk therapy’ and one of the most profound lessons I learned in my training as a psychology student (both for my professional and personal life) was the technique of Reflection.

Image result for carl rogers

The premise of this approach is quite simple: As a person is describing their ideas and/or feelings, you as the listener reflect those ideas back to them. You do not provide your own thoughts or opinions–in therapy, Rogers argued it was important for therapists to not impress their own views on their clients, but to rather guide the client towards their own resolution–and instead mirror the ideas of your conversational partner back to them.

It might go something like this:

Speaker 1: I wish that America’s debt to other countries was smaller.

Speaker 2: (Reflects) You wish that America did not owe money to other foreign powers. 

See–no judgment, just rephrasing. And what happens as a result? Speaker 1 must consider their view as it is presented using different wording, and might come to a deeper and fuller realization of their views, while Speaker 2 is given the opportunity to fully consider their conversational partner’s view without pressure to defend their own stance.

I’ve used this technique many times in both my professional and personal life with great success. For those who are trying it for the first time, it would be helpful to practice it with someone who you are not  diametrically opposed, because it can be tricky at first.

You need to be careful to not let your own opinions color your tone or inflection as you reflect back to your conversational partner. You also need to maintain an open mindset as you try and consider their viewpoint, rephrase it, and provide it back to them in your response.

With practice, though, Reflection offers a powerful tool for us to learn how to listen to each other again. After an election that was so painful and filled with such vitriol from both sides, I can only see the opportunity to hear one another again as act of healing.

To offer one powerful model of reflection, let me describe an anecdote about Carl Rogers and his approach to therapy. To preface this, it’s worth mentioning that another essential rule, he’d argue, was to wait for your client to speak and to only reply when rephrasing what your client had articulated for you.

As the story goes, there is a tape of Carl Rogers meeting with a catatonic schizophrenic. He begins the session by stating, “I am ready to listen” or something similar, and the tape continues in silence for the next 30 minutes, until Rogers again speaks to gently end their session.

Imagine any of us sitting in companionable silence with our political opposites, simply enjoying the potential for open discourse free of judgment and criticism.

Wouldn’t that be something?



Literature as a Salve for Grief: Books that Healed my Broken Heart

My father died suddenly almost five years ago. As it is for everyone who loses someone they love, I was devastated. It’s impossible to describe a loved one to others–to capture the special qualities that make their absence so profoundly felt–so all I’ll say about my father is that he epitomized that old saying: Any man can be a father, but it takes a special man to be a daddy. My dad was a very special man.

After his death, the profound weight of grief settled on my shoulders and wrapped around my spine, refusing to let go. Breathing was difficult. Prayer left me more drained as I grappled with my anger at losing our family patriarch so unexpectedly and early in his life. Mothering and remaining a partner to my husband felt like play-acting sometimes, as I tried to be brave in the face of my shattered grasp on what my life now was. I’d never known a life without my father.

Words have always been a place of solace for me, but during that turbulent time my own writing became splintered, as though I couldn’t hold a full thought inside my mind (which, in fact, is exactly how I felt). Instead, a trip to my local library proved the proverbial window that opens when a door closes. Ultimately, three authors guided me through and out of my grief. I’m sharing them below, in hopes that they might offer similar comfort to you in a time of great struggle.

  1. Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Image result for death comes to pemberley

In my writing career I think it is well-established that I am an adoring fan of P.D. James’s entire catalogue. What may not be as well known is when my affinity for her work began.  My library has a stack of shelves at its entrance that features new books and recommendations from its resident librarians. In the first month or two after losing my father, I stumbled into the library in search of some piece of mind between work and bus stop duty for my children. The cover of this book caught the corner of my eye as I rushed past: Pemberley! Scarves! My heart gave an encouraging flutter. Who is this P.D. James?

I took the book home and devoured it in two days. For the first time since losing my dad, I felt fully distracted from my grief while reading it. James’s prose and her intricate plotting, along with the setting of the story in the familiar and beloved environs of Austen’s Pemberley, allowed the hole in my heart to, though not be filled, at least be swaddled for a time from the crushing pulse of life moving on without my father. I quickly went on to the read James’s other mysteries, including her stand alone novels and her series featuring Det. Adam Dalgliesh. Discovering that she was widowed early in her life and began writing as a relatively young single mother only further confirmed the power of her writing over my grief: She had lost and yet survived. She had come through and so would I.

2. My Life from Scratch by Gesine Bullock-Prado

Image result for my life from scratch

Gesine’s memoir of losing her mother, leaving Hollywood, and moving to Vermont to start her own bakery offers a very different style from James–one that is informal, humorous, and self-deprecating at times–but which is equally perceptive and razor-sharp in its prose. This memoir describes several phases in Gesine’s life, but the universal thread tying them all together is her love for her mother and her struggle to come to terms with her death. For Gesine, baking became an outlet for her mourning, and for each chapter of her book  she offers tried and true recipes from her eponymous bakery (now shuttered in order for Gesine to focus on writing her exquisite cookbooks). After I finished the book, it remained in my kitchen (and resides there to this day) as I tried out each and every recipe from the book. Sinking my fingers into a mixture of flour, sugar, and butter as I knead together pie crust, or sift flour and salt together in preparation for a cake, I entirely understand the healing powers of baking. In a world where events often are inexplicable, the certainty that you will have a tender cake after whipping butter and sugar until 3x its original size is something to hold onto.

  3. The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

Image result for the report jessica francis kane

I discovered The Report by chance walking through the displays at my local book store and picked it up because of the intriguing cover.  On the surface, it might seem strange to find comfort from a writer whose self-proclaimed interests lie separate from “happy” fiction, but digging deeper it would hopefully become obvious how Kane’s capacity for bringing witness to the small frailties of life, and how one can reconcile with them, would bring solace to any reader, especially one at the loose ends of grief. The Report, set in the bomb shelters of WWII London, chronicles a tragic series of events, and the subsequent choices made by their participants, that forces the reader to question whether actions can be right without being moral. Kane is a highly calibrated craftsman of words (reminiscent of Amy Hempel) and I continue to find great satisfaction in her short stories, published in her collection This Close. By examining the dark selfishness in all of us, she also reveals our shared humanity as we struggle to overcome it.

Image result for this close jessica francis kane