Thursday, April 24, 2008

Listens well and follows directions

I always received high marks for listening in school, because that is what it looked like I did. From first through fifth grade, I ventured into class participation three times. Each one ended badly. I learned that even though the sign on the wall says “There is no such thing as a stupid question,” no one really believes that. I learned to research and ask books my questions rather than ask people.

Sometime between 9th and 12th grade, I became more open with my opinions. I became a debater. I learned to listen in order to think of a response. I listened to argue and the point was to win, not solve a problem, and certainly not to be convinced.

In an attempt to become a good listener, I picked up on the idea of echoing what a person says to make them realize you can relate, or something. I think I got it wrong, because I turned into one of those boors who responds, “Oh yes, I knew someone who had triple by-pass surgery like you are getting. He died.”

I developed into a person who needs to solve problems, even if they aren’t my problems and even if they don’t want to be solved. (And, no, I am not a man.) If you tell me your problem, my mind goes to work trying to fix it. You want me to listen; I am too busy solving your problem to hear you. As part of this, I often feel defensive about a problem. Even if it isn’t my problem and even if it doesn’t want to be solved, I feel that I have failed because I can’t solve it. See? This attitude isn’t conducive to listening.

And so, at an embarrassingly late age, I developed the ability to listen without thinking about solving the problem, without thinking of my response, without planning a counter-argument. It is a struggle. I had to realize that listening is a skill that is not inborn, but learned. I had to practice. I had to bite my tongue. I had to fail.

Now that I have developed this nascent skill, I have another problem.

Being open-minded can lead people to believe that I am easily swayed, simply because it is possible to sway me. Sometimes when I do a really good job of listening, others quit listening. Give them an inch, man…

I feel like I’m doing all the work. Compromise becomes the breakfast the chicken asked the pig to help her with. She said, “I’ll supply the eggs, and you supply the bacon. That’s fair, isn’t it?” And no, it isn’t fair.

And so, even as I approach 50, I still stumble between appearing to be a bully or a toady. I try to be an open-minded, calm, rational, mother-earth goddess type, and I end up stomping my foot and saying, “That isn’t fair. I’m listening and you should too.”

Oh well. As Jimmy Carter said, “Life isn’t fair.” And I’m not always fair either.

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