What makes a good listener? Each day my eldest comes home from school and complains about one little girl who seems to know just how to annoy her. My daughter tried to talk to a friend about it, but her friend said, “Oh, just go away!” Sometimes we all need a good listener to help us through difficult times, someone who is willing to put aside what they’re doing and focus on you. But it can be hard to be a good listener, especially when we’ve got our own ‘stuff’ going on.
When my daughter comes home and wants to let off steam about her day, I really want to be a good listener. It’s hard when I’ve had a tough day myself, or if I’ve spent a lot of time listening to lots of people already. She will start telling me about her day and about her feelings, and it seems no matter how ‘well’ I listen, she is able to carry on and continue recycling the same themes again and again. I get tired. I find myself growing fidgety and irritable. I can sense that I want her to stop talking: to just “get over it.” I’m feeling drained by being with someone who is so upset, and I admit that sometimes I stop being a good listener and my responses become less active. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling this way.
What is it about this interaction that brings about such a change of emotions for me? At the start I’m gung-ho about being there for her; by the end I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s over. I feel I’ve let her down and let myself down.
At the source of this is my helplessness. What can I do to change the past? How can I stop the other child from annoying my daughter? What do I do about my daughter’s desire to “get back” at the other child? As a mother I’m used to being able to solve most of my childrens’ problems. Once you’re in a rhythm, it’s easy to meet a baby’s needs.
As a child grows older it becomes harder to do so. She’s off at school and I can’t protect her from the difficulties and challenges the world will throw at her.
And then I find that I must have moved from listening mode to solving mode. All she wanted was for me to listen; all I wanted to do was listen. But my love for her made me want to solve her problem, and confronting my own helplessness made me want to escape. It takes discipline to stay in the moment, to be present to her as she needs me to be. Casting my mind forward to what I’d like to see happen, or focussing on what we could do to solve the problem, takes me out of the present moment and away from her.
She needs me to be right here, right now. I probably can’t solve her problem– it’s more likely that she can solve it herself with my loving, listening support.
When I was working in an office I used to come home and tell my husband all of my frustrations, and he would stop me and say, “Ok, here’s what you need to do….” I’d grow increasingly frustrated: “I don’t want you to solve my problem, I just want you to listen to me!” Listening doesn’t always involve arriving at a solution. Sometimes all that is required is presence.