All I want for Christmas: Listening

All I want for Christmas … is to listen to you open-heartedly and to be listened to in the same way.

I’m playing a little here, singing a tune in the background, but wanting You for Christmas means, among other things, really listening to you and you to me.

Left to my own devices, I’m not always good at listening. I sometimes listen while also drifting in my own imagination, continuing to ponder some detail that has my interest. Or I’m not fully interested in what you are talking about, so I silently tune you out. Or I have different opinions about what you “should” think or do, and mentally build my case. Inevitably, in these half-listening moments, I miss the gift of you, and I get lost in the dross of my own opinions, assumptions and judgments.

I know better. And yet the listening guidelines I want to use aren’t the ones I learned in Sunday School: Be nice. Always nod and show I’m interested in what your saying by my body language. Don’t interrupt. Keep all of my focus on you.

This Christmas I’ve come up with a new set of rules that hold keys for the quality of listening I’m longing for.

Don’t act like you are listening. Over the years, I’ve perfected the nod and regular little affirming sounds to show that I am listening. I’ve realized that these affirming little gestures have absolutely no relationship to actually listening. I want to stop “acting like” I’m listening and start actually doing it.

Don’t just listen to you. Also listen to myself.  Conscious listening comes from listening simultaneously in two directions at once—to you and to the thoughts in my own head. When I listen to someone else, my thoughts naturally keep moving. The trouble begins when something you say reminds me of something in my past—something that feels similar to a story I’ve heard before or something I’ve learned when I was in “that situation.” Other times I quit listening because I feel your repeating what you’ve said a million times before. I must know what I am thinking, not to merely dive headfirst into my own ideas and judgments but in order to consciously step outside my reminiscing and back inside of actually listening. To you.

It is critical that I differentiate between past events and my assumptions. Being unconscious of that difference inevitably distorts what I am hearing into a mish mash of you and me.

Don’t put myself in your shoes. There is no way I can step cleanly into your shoes and not have them filled with assumptions that may or may not be true. Relationships are best lived when each of us wears our own shoes, or as my friend Rose puts it, where each of us stays on our own yoga mat.

Interrupt. Of course, I’m not talking about interrupting so I can tell you what I’ve crafted in my mind while you were talking. That only shows I wasn’t listening in the first place. On the other hand, the spiritual practice of holy interrupting is used when I am so caught on something in my mind and can no longer listen to you.

I don’t want to pretend I’m listening when I can’t. That is a lie. If I really want to hear what you are saying, though, and I can’t, the only respectful thing to do is to interrupt and ask that you wait to continue until I can listen again.

Interrupting isn’t the goal, of course. Ideally, if I notice my thoughts wandering off, I return to listening to you. But sometimes I can’t do that. And then I must interrupt.

While it can be embarrassingly easy for me to interrupt when I impatiently want to share my ideas, it is very hard to admit when I’m mentally caught and can’t listen. The first interrupting is rude (even though it can feel like an exciting conversation); the second is very respectful (even though it can feel rude).

Sometimes just speaking out loud is enough to bring me back to being able to listen to you. Sometimes I need to speak just a little to bring me back. Unfortunately, sometimes I have to fight my embarrassment and take more time to get over my listening roadblock. My goal is always to return to listening to you. Really listening.

It’s a precious gift to listen and to be listened to.

Listening to others in a present and conscious state is the second realm of the Be Present Empowerment Model®: Nestled between knowing myself outside the distress of oppression and building effective relationships and sustaining true alliances. None of these are easy for me, yet they hold the key for me to receive all the gift all of myself and to build strong, sustainable relationships both with you and with my global family. When I truly listen, I am participating in the change I want to see in the world.

This Christmas, I really want to listen. To you. And to me. Because all I want for Christmas is you and me, together.


This blog is in honor of my mother, Mary Sue Tipps Mathys, who died 32 years ago on this night, as the Solstice drew to a close and the light began its return. She was, among many other things, an amazing listener.