Lean in: On trauma, embodied trust and holding space

Listen to me read the post:

I was lying on a table and the practitioner holding my arm with both hands was saying “relax your muscles and let me move your arm for you”. With all of my will, I tried. I wanted to do what she asked, if only to make my inner people-pleaser happy. I wanted to be completely relaxed, trusting her to manoeuvre my arm the way she was trying to do it. But I couldn’t. I just COULD NOT. Every time she tried to move my arm, my muscles would involuntarily tighten, anticipate the movement she was trying to manage, and then help her do it. As much as my head told me she was trustworthy, my body refused to believe it. 

I was visiting this Feldenkrais practitioner, hoping to relieve the pain in my shoulder. I’d been for an X-ray a month earlier, when I’d injured myself in a tumble out of my bathtub, and it revealed nothing, so I’d assumed, based on the doctor saying it was probably muscular, that the shoulder would just get better. It didn’t. A friend recommended Feldenkrais. 

Not knowing it was a fracture (that would be revealed a month later in an MRI), the treatment left me in more pain than when I’d arrived. I drove home in tears.

The tears weren’t just about the pain though. I was crying because, while lying on the table trying not to move the muscles she didn’t want me to move, I’d been reminded just how hard it was to lean into fully embodied trust in another person. 

By then, I knew enough about trauma to recognize what was going on. My muscles held the memories of all of the times my body had been harmed – the rape by a stranger in my twenties and the abuse in my marriage – coupled with the shame and disassociation/disembodiment planted in my body from a childhood in a restrictive “purity culture” religion. Even though I’d done a considerable amount of therapy and healing by then, my body remained hypervigilant, prepared for any harm that might come. The only person I could trust to keep my body safe was ME.

Last week, on a long road trip, I was listening to Billy Porter’s memoir, Unprotected, about how he grew up – a flamboyant queer Black kid in a world that rejected and assaulted him again and again. His family and church community treated him like an abomination, his step dad sexually abused him for five years, he was bullied in school, and there were no places (or people) in his childhood that were truly safe for him. The first place he remembers having an embodied experience of safety and support was on the set of Pose, the TV show he starred in about New York City’s ball culture, an LGBTQ subculture in the African-American and Latino communities (in the 80s and 90s).

Though we come from very different backgrounds, there was still resonance in his story for me. I know what it means to have lifelong shame in my body because I was told it was shameful by the church. I know what it means to not believe people will treat my body with care because my body remembers harm. 

I also know how surprising it can be to one day realize that something has changed – that you’ve found yourself in the presence of trustworthy people, that you can trust your own wisdom about what boundaries are needed (and you have more strength and better support structures in place to hold those boundaries), and that maybe, just maybe, you can start to put down the burden of shame that your childhood self learned to carry.

Of course, it’s not enough to know those things in your HEAD, you also need to know them in your BODY – and that’s the tricky part. I thought I’d figured this stuff out years ago, when I had a head full of knowledge and had made some hard choices about much-needed boundaries, but then I kept getting reminders, like when I tried to trust the Feldenkrais practitioner, that my body still didn’t fully trust people. 

Often it was more about emotional safety than physical safety, but my nervous system doesn’t know the difference and the muscles in my body prepare for fight/flight/freeze/fawn regardless of the source of the threat. Even in places that are seemingly quite safe, like when I’m at a retreat or in a conversation circle with a group of like-hearted people, I notice the signs in my body that there is something in the room that’s triggering a trauma response.

It’s been a long journey, trying to understand, heal and soothe this in myself. I have deep gratitude for the people who’ve been alongside me in this journey, people like my business partner Krista and my dear friend Saleha, as well as therapists and mentors. 

Even in those relationships, though, there were times early on when I struggled to lean into fully embodied trust. A part of me remained wary and vigilant. “Isn’t this too good to be true? Can this person really be trusted? Won’t they withdraw their care at some point? Shouldn’t I keep my guard up and maintain my distance? Will they really stick around when I screw up?”

When I first started teaching about the practice of holding space, years ago, it surprised me to hear a lot of participants in my courses and workshops say “I’m good at holding space for other people, but I’m not very good at allowing other people to hold space for me.” It shouldn’t have surprised me, though – because the very same thing was true for me. I could offer a space that others would experience as safe, but I could rarely trust that what others offered me would be safe. I used to say that it was because “I have high standards for people’s skills in facilitation, coaching, therapy, etc.” but in truth, it was more like “my nervous system is hyper-vigilant about who is worthy of my trust.”

Even in recent months, I’ve had a few opportunities to notice when my lack of trust still gets triggered and sometimes gets in the way of growth. It’s been a busy season of working with other people who are helping to advance my work and the work of the Centre for Holding Space – editors and publishers who are working on making my next book the best that it can be and marketing/branding consultants who are helping us expand the reach of the Centre’s work. Every once in a while, I notice my nervous system being activated in this process and a little voice in my head says “Is it safe to trust these people with this work that feels so intertwined with my identity? What if they reject or mislead me? What if I get hurt?” Whenever that stuff gets activated, I have an opportunity to interrogate it and extend tenderness to that scared part of me that still believes that past harm equals future harm. (Fortunately, the people supporting the book and the Centre are wise and caring and have proven trustworthy again and again.)

I’ve said it many times: holding space is FAR more of an internal practice than it is an external practice. It’s about noticing how our own baggage gets in the way of our ability to be present for other people. It’s about healing our own trauma and soothing our reactivity so that we don’t project it onto other people. It’s about leaning into our discomfort and learning to live in liminality so that we don’t get so easily knocked off centre. 

AND it’s also about having grace and compassion for the other people we hold space for, knowing that some of them might lack an embodied feeling of trust even when their head says it’s safe (and most of those people won’t know how to articulate it). It’s about not taking it personally when someone has a triggered reaction to something we say or do. It’s about having patience for the other person’s wariness and resistance, and it’s about consistently showing up and working to earn their trust. 

I am eternally grateful to those people who, especially in the early days of my healing journey, were willing to stick around and continue to hold space for me even when the trauma showed up in my body and I wanted to (and sometimes did) run away. They dared to love me despite how skittish I sometimes was. 

I keep doing this work because I know that it’s important. I want to be in deep, trusting, and secure relationships with people. I want to find the people I can trust with even my most traumatized parts. I want to be as safe as I can be in my own body so that I can offer a safe haven and secure base for other people. 

More than anything, I want to make choices rooted in the pursuit of joy, liberation and embodied trust rather than trauma and distrust. That’s what my upcoming book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself is all about. I’m excited to share it with you in January. You can pre-order your copy here. (And pre-orders are GREATLY appreciated!)

*****

P.S. If you’re still learning about what it means to hold space for yourself (and others), and if you want to explore more about what it takes to create trauma-informed spaces for meaningful conversation, join us in the How to Hold Space Foundation Program. It starts the week of October 23. 

It’s okay to be wounded (and it’s okay to heal)

Recently I wrote a post about worshipping our wounds. In it, I talked about how sometimes we cling to our wounds too long because they become part of our identity or healing them might feel threatening to those who don’t want us to change.

I’ve been thinking about that post since, and I think it might need a few additional words to give it balance.

As much as I think it can be unhealthy to worship our wounds, I also don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that we should rush to heal our wounds, that we should pretend we don’t have wounds, or that we should feel ashamed for having those wounds. 

It takes time to heal trauma. And even before the healing begins, it takes time to admit to ourselves that we have trauma and that we need healing. When I think about my divorce, for example, I have to admit that it took me a surprisingly long time to admit to myself the extent of the trauma from my marriage, and then it took even longer to speak about it to others. I’ve always prided myself in being resilient, strong and reliable, and those things felt especially important to me when I needed to be emotionally stable for my daughters and my clients. I was afraid that revealing my woundedness would mean that I was weak and people couldn’t depend on me.

Six years after the marriage ended, I’m still in therapy working to heal not only the wounds from my marriage, but also the wounds that I took into the marriage as a result of my rape as a twenty-two year old. 

You have permission to take the time you need to do your healing work. You have permission to take longer than anyone else around you. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong if it takes longer than you expect. It just means you’re human.

One of the dangers of not acknowledging the time it takes to heal deep wounds is that we can be tempted to slip into spiritual bypassing, where we grasp onto any spiritual practice or healing methodology that offers us a quick fix but that only masks what’s really going on or tries to “transcend” it instead of going deep enough to heal the roots of the pain. And one of the risks of spiritual bypassing is that it often excuses the perpetrator of the harm that was done to us and doesn’t allow us to feel anger or to seek justice for the wrong as part of our efforts to heal.

Healing is a journey, with lots of detours and rest stops along the way. It’s like a labyrinth that takes you through all kinds of twists and turns that sometimes feel like they’re getting you closer to the centre and sometimes take you further toward the edge. It takes the time it takes. You’re not doing it wrong if you stay on the path, rest when you need to rest, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

You’ll get to the centre eventually if you stay on the path.

As long as you don’t intentionally get stuck and start clinging to your wounds, worshipping them, or allowing them to define who you are, you’re on the right journey.

***

p.s. If you’re on a healing journey and want to learn more about holding space for yourself and others, you might want to check out The Spiral Path, a self-study program that takes you through the three stages of a labyrinth journey. Or check out our Holding Space Foundation Program.

Finding her voice: A quest for healing in the family lineage

image purchased from iStock

Listen to me read this post:

“When one woman doesn’t speak, other women get hurt.”
Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

“When I get my grad pictures taken,” my daughter Maddy said yesterday, “I want to have one taken where I’m holding a megaphone.” She graduates from high school in June. She’s hoping to buy her own megaphone before then, just because it’s something she feels that she should own.

Last week, while I was away in B.C. leading back-to-back retreats, Maddy was at home using her voice and learning to use a megaphone. As one of the leaders of Manitoba Youth for Climate Action, she’d helped to organize two major events – a die-in for climate action (with hundreds of youth pretending to die on the steps of the Human Rights Museum, to represent those lives being lost to climate change), and a climate strike (with 12,000 people participating in our city). Each day I’d get text messages from her with videos, photos, and multiple links to media interviews she’d done. In one of those news clips, she can be seen leading the marchers in a chant, megaphone in hand (video at the bottom of this link).

It was that short clip – my daughter shouting into a megaphone in front of thousands of marchers – that moved me to tears. The fact that she not only had the courage to USE her voice at seventeen (to speak on behalf of a planet that has suffered because of the greed and carelessness of many generations before her) but to AMPLIFY it was remarkable.

Not long before that, at a retreat on Holding Space for Yourself, I’d spoken about the ways that we, especially as women, keep ourselves small and hold back our voices. This wasn’t a “shame on you for being silent” conversation – it was an acknowledgement of the trauma, shame, and silencing we face and that generations before us have faced – all of those stories we carry in our bones, our hearts, and our bodies that tell us we are not worthy of having our voices heard and that we are in danger if we speak too loudly.

When I was Maddy’s age, I was still tangled in the grip of those influences in my life that told me that my voice had little value and should never be amplified. I remember, for example, simply wanting to read the scripture from the pulpit in the tiny rural church I grew up in (not even sharing my OWN words, but reading GOD’S out loud) and being told (by my father, who was the leader of the church at the time) that women weren’t allowed to do that. I KNEW I had leadership capacity and I KNEW I had something to say, but again and again I heard that that was a space reserved only for men.

That belief, seeded deep into my psyche, stayed with me for a long, long time, and even now, at fifty-three, I still have moments of sell-doubt when I know the old messages need to be rejected all over again. I spent most of my career, in fact, in service to that deep-seeded belief. Though I knew I had things to say, I spent the first half of my career working as a communications professional, teaching OTHER people how to communicate, helping OTHER people perform well in media interviews, putting words in OTHER people’s mouths by writing their speeches for them. I was the expert in communications, but rarely did I get to speak.

My job was to pass the megaphone to everyone else and to make sure they sounded good when they used it. Just as I’d been taught so many years before… “a woman’s role is to serve quietly in the background, letting the men have the shining roles.”

A few weeks after my mom died, I wrote a post about women’s voices. In it, I talked about how it was challenging to find my own voice, given the messaging I’d received (a lot of which, sadly, came from my mother) about the lack of value of that voice.

From that post: In recent years, while I’ve been growing my body of work, I’ve had a hard time sharing what I do with my Mom. Some things – like the teaching I do at the university – was fairly easy for her to grasp, but other things just didn’t make sense to her. For one thing, she remained committed to a Christian tradition that frowned upon women in leadership, so when I started teaching women how to lead with more courage, creativity and wild-heartedness, it didn’t really fit with her paradigms. 

There was a time when it made me angry that my mom, who should have been my greatest advocate and ally, contributed to my silencing and the shame and fear I had to wrestle with in order to speak, but I don’t blame her any more. Years of healing work have helped me to understand how much she herself had been silenced and shamed and how much she felt responsible (though it was largely unconscious responsibility) for protecting me from the harm that comes to women who speak.

In the seven years since that post, I’ve learned a lot more about internalized oppression and trauma and how we adopt the language and behaviour of the systems that oppress us to silence, gaslight, and shame ourselves. It’s what keeps us submissive, silent, and in service to those who have more power. And then, because we’ve been well trained in it, we do the same to our offspring – passing down the oppression from generation to generation to generation. 

I’ve also been learning more and more about trauma and how it’s intricately intertwined with oppression. I recognize it in myself every time I begin to speak of things that threaten to disrupt the status quo – my throat begins to close up, my body trembles, and I know that my flooded nervous system is trying to convince me to RUN! PROTECT YOURSELF! YOU ARE NOT SAFE HERE! It’s trauma from my own youthful attempts to speak and it’s trauma inherited from generations and generations of women – some of whom were branded as witches and burned at the stake for the very things I now speak of.

No, my mom is not to blame. Her silence, insecurity, and shame were all deeply embedded in the training that she, too, had received. That was all she knew how to pass down to her daughters.

My dad is also not to blame. He, too, was playing the role he’d been taught to play and held his own fear of how deviating from that role might bring harm to him and his family. (I remember the way he agonized about saying no to me when I wanted to speak – I’m certain he WANTED to let me.)

My parents were doing the best that they knew how and I love them for it. I love them for the many ways that they DID support me – the curiosity that my dad helped to foster in me, the way my mom modelled how to hold space long before I knew the term, the way they both encouraged me to read and learn and be open to other people’s views.

Despite their best efforts, though, I acknowledge the pain that was passed down to me. I acknowledge the trauma of being a woman with a voice who was taught that voice was worthless. I acknowledge the wounds I had to heal in order to get to this place where I now trust that I have something to say. I acknowledge the fear I still feel sometimes when my voice causes too much disruption and I face rejection and punishment from a system that doesn’t want to be disrupted. I acknowledge all of that AND I acknowledge the painstaking work that is required for ALL of us to heal what other generations have bequeathed us with.

This post started with my daughter Maddy and I want to end there. I was moved to tears by the video clip of my daughter with a megaphone partly because of the pride I feel for her and partly because the healing work I’ve done has disrupted what’s being passed from generation to generation. THAT is something to celebrate.

She can claim her space and use her voice at an early age partly because she has inherited less of the baggage that prevented me from doing the same. Her voice now rings loud and clear with all of the other youth around the planet calling on us to disrupt the systems that are destroying our planet. (It’s not lost on me that the disruption of patriarchal oppression allows youth to rise up to call for further disruption.)

It still takes courage for her to do what she does (and I take credit for none of that – SHE did this, not me), but at least she started out on more sturdy ground.

This is why I believe that the work of holding space – where we dive into trauma, oppression, generational wounding, power, privilege, etc. (especially in Module 4 of the program) – is so critical and this is why I believe we must hold space for ourselves so that we can better hold space for others. This isn’t just about creating spaces for meaningful conversations – it’s about LIBERATION. It’s about DISRUPTION. It’s about COLLECTIVE HEALING. And it’s about changing the patterns so that we can free ourselves from dysfunctional systems.

If you have healing work to do to be liberated from what you’ve inherited, know that you’re doing it not only for yourself, but for the generations that come after you.

The more we can hold space for ourselves in this healing, the more we can work collectively to disrupt the systems that keep us chained.

___________________

Want to join me for the Holding Space Practitioner Program? The next session starts October 28, 2019.

p.s. Maddy has given permission for me to talk about her in this post.

This body, without the triumphant narrative

I am fat. Let’s get that out of the way first. At least 60-70 pounds over what would be considered my “ideal weight”. Probably more, but I don’t own a scale. 

I don’t love this about myself, but it’s part of my story. It has been, to varying degrees, all of my adult life.

Yes, there are reasons why I am fat. Maybe it’s thyroid related. Maybe it’s trauma related. Maybe it’s far too much self-soothing with food. Maybe it’s the way I always found it easier to value my brain over my body. Maybe it’s the religious shame that told me my body is a sin. Maybe it’s about me trying to protect myself from being raped again. Maybe it’s the pussy grabbing. Maybe it’s a lifelong battle against a patriarchal world that wants to label me, shame me, and force my body to conform. Maybe it’s all of those things.

Whatever it is, it’s my story. It’s the most visible story because I carry it with me every single day, but it’s also the hardest to talk about. It carries the most shame and fear of judgement, not because I think I’m bad or ugly or don’t love myself (I do), but because fat is one of the most unacceptable things to be in this image-obsessed world. It’s one of the hardest to live with, because there is always the assumption that it is “your fault”.

I’ve done enough public story-sharing to know that there will inevitably be those people who will read my story and judge me and/or want to fix me and send me the right diet, the right thyroid cure, the right books, the right self-love teachings, the right exercise plan, etc. They’ll tell themselves they’re doing it with my best interests at heart (don’t I want to live a long life? don’t I want to be a good influence for my children?), but they’re really not. They’re doing it because of their own discomfort with fatness.

And so I keep my fat stories close to my chest.

But this week, thanks to Roxane Gay, I feel differently. I feel like I want to add my voice to hers and say “We’re fat. Get over it.”

“Fat is not an insult. It is a descriptor. And when you interpret it as an insult, you reveal yourself and what you fear most.” – RG

Roxane Gay wrote a book called Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s high on my list of “must read soon”. In it she shares what it’s like to walk around in the world as a fat person.

Coming out with her story should be liberating and empowering for Roxane (and I hope it is, for the most part) but this week, she was fat-shamed by one of the interviewers who talked to her about the book. Mia Freedman introduced the podcast by talking about the detailed preparations that had to be made for Roxanne Gay to visit her recording studio. “Will she fit into the office lift? How many steps will she have to take to get to the interview? Is there a comfortable chair that will accommodate her six-foot-three, ‘super-morbidly obese’ frame?”

The article made my blood boil. An interviewer should be honoured and humbled that someone of Roxane Gay’s stature (and by that I don’t mean size) and wisdom would visit the program. She’s one of the finest writers I know of and the fact that she is willing to share her vulnerable stories with people should be seen as a gift beyond measure. To shame someone who has done that kind of emotional labour on other people’s behalf is unconscionable and downright disgusting.

I was angry, but I was also triggered. I haven’t been the target of such overt and public fat-shaming, but I know what it’s like to have people look at you funny if you dare to eat french fries in public. And I know how it feels to have people on planes glance at you with a look that says they’re hoping they’re not seated next to you. And I know what it’s like to be hesitant to ride your bicycle around the neighbourhood because you’re pretty sure people are judging you.

Here’s a newsflash in case this comes as a surprise… Fat people know they’re fat. And we don’t need pity or advice or judgement. And there is absolutely nothing a stranger could say to us that would suddenly make us able to change the size of our bodies. Every piece of advice on getting thinner is already available to us. Every bit of shame anyone’s tempted to heap on us, we’ve probably already heaped on ourselves.

We’re not fat because we’re not smart enough, don’t try hard enough, or haven’t been shamed enough for it. We’re fat because… well, because we’re fat. That’s about all anyone other then us and perhaps our most intimate circle of friends, family, or medical professionals (if we so choose) needs to know about us.

We might choose, like Roxane Gay, to offer up a story to help people understand why we’re fat, but we do not owe that story to anyone. When we choose to be vulnerable about it, that is our gift, not our obligation.

After reading the story about Mia Freedman, I watched an interview Roxane Gay did with Trevor Noah. In it she talked about how her weight started accumulating after she was gang-raped as a young teenager. And then she said something profound that goes beyond just a story about weight.

“People want a triumphant narrative. They want to know that you have solved the problem of your body. But my body is not a problem and it’s certainly not something I have solved yet.”

Indeed. We want the triumphant narrative. We want to hear stories of success – of how a simple diet or lifestyle change transformed someone’s life – so that we can believe that success is possible and there are neat bows that can be tied around a story to clean up the messy bits in the middle.

But we don’t always get the triumphant narrative. Sometimes we get continued struggle. And sometimes we get to a place of acceptance of what is rather than a triumph over it.

I have been struggling with that triumphant narrative this past year. Though I didn’t know it consciously, I had subconsciously bought into the typical health and wellness coaching narrative that leads us to believe that when we find contentment and healing in our lives and once we get rid of the external baggage that was weighing us down, we’ll start to lose pounds off our bodies as well. “Clear out the bad energy and your body will respond accordingly.”

I’m the happiest and healthiest I’ve been in a long time. A LOT has shifted for me emotionally in the two years since my marriage ended. I got rid of a lot of clutter (both physical and emotional) when I cleaned out and renovated my home. My business has grown and I’m doing work that I love and that I’m fulfilled by. I’ve been for therapy and I’ve done lots of energy and body healing work. I’m learning to pay attention to my body in new ways. I’m in such a good place, I almost feel guilty sometimes about how good my life is.

But… I am also the heaviest I’ve ever been. Heavier than I was when I was pregnant with my daughters. And that doesn’t make sense in a world that wants a triumphant narrative.

There’s a part of me that doesn’t know how to square that away in my mind. Shouldn’t all of that effort to heal my emotional wounds result in a slimmer body? If I gained the weight because of the trauma and wounds, shouldn’t it come off now?

But there’s another part of me – the part that has sat at the bedside and watched my mother die, the part that held my dead son’s body in my arms, and the part that knows that rapists climb through windows – that knows that the triumphant narrative is, more often than not, bull shit. 

Sure we get triumph sometimes, but we also get pain and failure.

Perhaps the direct correlation between the healing and the weight loss is just another one of those marketing stories the health coaches want to sell us. Maybe it’s a lot more complicated than that. Otherwise… wouldn’t Oprah, with all of her experts and money, have figured out how to keep it all off permanently by now?

What I keep coming back to is this… Acceptance and resilience are worth a lot more than triumph. 

Sure, triumph is flashy and alluring, but acceptance and resilience are a lot more valuable in the long run. Acceptance and resilience bring contentment and teach us how to get through the fire the next time it comes.

That’s the part I’m working on. I am accepting this fat body that still loves to ride a bicycle through the neighbourhood. I am accepting the amazing way this body knows how to birth babies even when they’re dead. I am accepting the pain this body is capable of holding. I am accepting the fact that this body loves pleasure and comfort and good food and good wine. I am accepting the way it feels when my beloveds wrap their arms around this body. And I am accepting the fact that there are still emotional wounds that this body is holding that may take all of my life to heal.

Because this body may be fat, but this body is also powerful and fierce and has climbed mountains, wielded hammers, birthed babies, carried canoes, held crying children, hiked through forests, slept on the bare ground, skinny-dipped in wild lakes, made love, survived rape,  and rode horses. 

And this body will continue to do all those things for as long as she can no matter how much judgement comes her way.

Learning to listen

listening

 

My three daughters are all very different in how they view the world, how they communicate and how they process emotions. One of the most challenging things I’ve had to learn as their mom is that I have to listen to them differently.

One is introverted and takes a long time to process things, so even when I sense that something might be bothering her, I often have to wait a couple of weeks before I’ll hear about it. One is more extroverted and tends to think and experience the world the most like I do, so I often make the mistake of assuming I know things about her before I’ve taken the time to genuinely listen. A third is very private about her emotions and uses humour as one of her ways of processing the world, so I have to listen extra carefully for the subtle things she’s saying underneath the witticism.

I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of times I don’t. There are a surprising number of things that get in the way of good listening. Sometimes there are too many distractions, sometimes I’m tired, sometimes they’ve hurt my feelings and I’m resentful, and sometimes I just want them to be more like me so I don’t have to work so hard to figure them out.

Listening takes a lot of practice. Even though we develop our ability to hear while still in utero (unless we’re hearing impaired), genuine empathic listening is a skill that takes much longer to develop. And even when we’ve worked hard to develop it, we often mess it up.

Not only does listening take a lot of practice, it takes a lot of vigilance and intentionality to stay in it. Sometimes in a coaching session, for example, I’ll be in deep listening mode and suddenly something will distract me or trigger me and I’ll have to work really hard to stay present for the person in front of me. I can’t always identify what it was that pulled me away – it can be a body sensation (ie. my throat suddenly feeling like it’s closing, triggered by something they said), an emotional response (ie. my eyes fill with tears and suddenly I’m in my own story instead of theirs), or my own ego (ie. wanting to insert my own answer to their problem rather than wait for them to find their solution). Each time something like that happens, I have to bring my attention back to the person in front of me.

Over the weekend, I asked my Facebook friends a series of questions about listening.
1. What do you think are the best indicators that someone is genuinely listening to you?
2. What do you think are the indicators that someone is NOT genuinely listening to you?
3. When do you find it most challenging to listen to another person?
4. What personal work, self-care, etc. helps you be a better listener?

There were a lot of great answers to my questions. (Click on each question to see all of the responses.) Here’s a summary of some of the things that struck me in the answers:

  1. Genuine listening can’t be faked. While there were a lot of responses about outward signals that someone is listening (eye contact, bodily engagement, good questions), there wasn’t agreement about which signals were most valuable and there was lots of indication that people need to have a genuine felt sense that the person listening is fully present.
  2. Culture and context matter. Some cultures, for example, don’t value eye contact. And some contexts (ie. when the speaker has a lot of shame or trauma) require a more nuanced form of listening that may mean no eye contact and/or no questions.
  3. “Ultimately, a good listener allows the person they are listening to to hear THEMSELVES.” (Chris Zydel) When we, as listeners, interject too much of ourselves in the act of listening (questions, interruptions, too much body language, etc.) we can pull the person away from the depth and openheartedness of their own story.
  4. Genuine listening involves stilling your body and mind so that you can be fully present. In response to the question about indicators when someone is not listening, several people mentioned fidgeting, checking devices, not making eye contact, looking past the speaker, nodding too much, etc., indicating that when we are being listened to, we are usually perceptive to the body signals that a person is genuinely engaged with us.
  5. The behaviour of the person speaking strongly impacts our ability to listen to them. Approximately three quarters of the answers to the question about when people find it most challenging to listen to another person were about the speaker’s behaviour (when they are self-righteous, condescending, not willing to be openminded, basing their opinions on propaganda, performing rather than speaking from the heart, etc.) rather than the listeners. Fewer people identified their own blocks (when I am angry, weary, in disagreement, wrapped up in my own stuff, unwell, traumatized, etc.)
  6. Both speaker and listener have to be engaged and willing to be openhearted for it to work. Genuine listening is a two-way street and it can’t happen when one or the other is checked out, distracted or not being honest with themselves. If the speaker is closed off or defensive, it shuts down the ability to listen. If the listener is closed off, triggered, etc., it shuts down the speaker’s willingness to be vulnerable.
  7. Genuine listening requires self-awareness and good self-care. When we have done our own healing work, paid attention to our own triggers, and taken time to listen to ourselves first, we are in a much better position to listen to others.

Much of what I’ve learned about both listening and speaking, I’ve learned by practicing and teaching The Circle Way. The three practices of circle are: 1. To speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment. 2. To listen with attention: respectful of the learning process for all members of the group. 3. To tend the well-being of the circle: remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.

Gathering in The Circle Way means that we slow conversation down and give more intentional space to both speaking and listening. When we use the talking piece, for example, there are no interruptions, cross-talk, etc. Nobody redirects what you’re saying by interjecting their own questions, nobody diminishes your wisdom by interjecting their answers to your problems, and everybody is trusted to own their own story and look after the circle by not taking up too much space or time. It can take a lot of practice (some people are quite resistant to talking piece council because they don’t feel it’s genuine conversation if no questions are allowed), but once you get used to the paradigm shift, it’s quite transformational.

According to Otto Schamer and Katrin Kaufer in “Leading from the Emerging Future”, there are four levels of listening.

  1. Downloading: the listener hears ideas and these merely reconfirm what the listener already knows.
  2. Factual listening: the listener tries to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas.
  3. Empathic listening: the listener is willing to see reality from the perspective of the other and sense the other’s circumstances.
  4. Generative listening: the listener forms a space of deep attention that allows an emerging future to ‘land’ or manifest.

Listening becomes increasingly more difficult as we move down these four levels, because each level invites us into a deeper level of risk, vulnerability and openness. There is no risk in downloading, because it doesn’t require that we change anything. Factual listening is a little more risky because it might require a change of opinion or belief. Empathic listening increases the risk because it requires that we open our hearts, engage our emotions, and risk being changed by another person’s perspective. Generative listening is the most risky of all, because it requires that we be willing to change everything – behaviour, opinions, lifestyle, beliefs, action, etc. in order to allow something new to emerge.

Generative listening not only requires a willingness to change, but a willingness to admit I might be wrong.

For example, when I engage in generative listening around race relations, I have to be willing to admit that I have benefited from the privilege of being white, and that I might be guilty of white fragility. If I am truly willing to listen in a way that generates an “emerging future”, there’s a very good chance I will be challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before to accept the truth of who I am and how I’ve benefited from and been complicit or actively engaged in an oppressive system.

On a more personal level, generative listening as a mother means that I have to own my own mistakes and listen for the ways I may have wounded my daughters.

Not long ago, I was speaking with my oldest two daughters about some of the past conflict in our home, and I heard things that were hard to hear about how they felt betrayed by me when I didn’t protect them and didn’t help them maintain healthy boundaries. Everything in me wanted to defend myself and get them to understand my point of view, but I knew I would only do more damage if I did that. If I wanted our relationship to grow deeper and our home to feel more safe for all of us, I had to listen to their pain and not shut it down. 

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been nearly as receptive to my daughters’ words. Some of it, in fact, they tried to tell me then but I didn’t listen. Back then, I was still too wounded and didn’t have enough self-awareness to listen well. I would be much quicker to jump to my own defence or to offer a short-sighted solution.

Through the healing of my own wounds, I am much more able to hold space for theirs.

I’ve learned to listen better to my daughters, but there are still some spaces where I have a very difficult time engaging in generative listening. Some of the spaces I still have difficulty with are when I have to face too many of my own flaws, when the person speaking triggers unhealed trauma memories, or when the other person has more power or influence in a situation than I do. I will continue to heal and build resilience so that I am not shut down in these spaces. Some of that involves listening to myself more deeply and finding spaces where I am genuinely listened to.

This is not easy work, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Learning to listen is a lifelong journey that starts with the healing of the wounds that get in the way.

If you want to be a better listener, start by listening to yourself.

 

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