I find myself time and time again being confronted with the angry voice of my ex on the phone. She makes claims and accusations against me that either is years old or completely made up. What to do? When we were married I would try to pacify her. I gave her whatever she asked for but it was only a temporary fix. From the trips we went on to the presents I bought her for every holiday I could never seem to award her the thing that she most needed. Maybe because I didn’t understand that all she wanted was my undivided attention.
Just like an unsettled child, many emotional adults suffer from a lack of attention. Some of them may need it in the form of direct contact but most need it in the form of listening. I mean really listening and not trying to hear their words just to offer a solution. It wasn’t until after we separated, and I began working with my friend Emily, that I learned to listen. We would talk and I would express some emotions of mine and some suffering I’d been through and she would silently hear all my words. I was initially uncomfortable with this. I would ask her if she wanted to say anything and she would politely say, “No I’m just listening.” It was in her listening to me when I really began to understand how to listen.
After a few month of me rambling on about my troubles Emily finally came to me with an emotional dilemma she had. She described it in great detail and I really had trouble relating to all of it and wanted to point out errors in her judgment and solutions to her problem. I did my best to fight these urges and instead agreed with her statements and tried to feel her pain exactly as she described it and imagine myself in her dilemma. And that was the key to truly listening.
Now for those of you thinking, “Well it’s very obvious”, I want to point out that not everyone, mostly men, understand that listening isn’t just about hearing words but it’s putting yourself into the role of the person speaking. As time moves on the urge to solve the problems for the other person diminished. In fact, now I try not to offer any advice to anyone unless they say, “Hey could you help me with this?”
Now my mind can focus closely on their words and their emotions and I need not distinguish them from my feelings or emotional connection to the issue, because it’s not about me. It’s about a person wanting to be heard. And by hearing them the listener is giving the person who maybe crying, complaining or just letting off steam an ear and it makes them feel like they are important. You don’t have to agree with them but don’t turn this into a conversation, again, it’s not about you, it’s about the person that feels overshadowed in some way and they have come to you, a trusted person to explain the situation. Many times after telling her story Emily would say, “Thank you, I really needed to get that out of my head and talk it through with someone.” And that was the truth. She doesn’t need my help, not that I could provide any. What she needed was a way to express how she feels without judgment and talking to herself isn’t going to satisfy that need.
And as I have learned all this, I still have trouble talking with my Ex. She is continually stating how I have failed to met her needs but rarely stops to listen when I tell her what I can actually do. In some cases some people’s needs can’t be met. They are in such a mess that they don’t even know what they really need, so their cries for help come off as the same as a colicky baby. But in between the noise I remain calm and my hopes is that she like a baby will learn to speak clearly and I’ll understand. But for now I don’t judge, I just listen.