When You Can't Listen Another Minute

An excerpt from The Dance of Connection, by Harriet Lerner, PhD.
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When You Can't Listen Another Minute

We all have our limits on how available we are to listen, just as we all have our limits on how much we can do or give.

We may feel weighed down by the other person's grousing, which can take up too much space in the relationship and feel like a tape automatically going round and round. If that other person happens to be a family member, our own mood may spiral downward in response to these chronic expressions of worry or negativity. If the other person rejects our best efforts to help, and takes no positive action on his or her own behalf, the challenge of compassionate listening is especially great. It may be difficult for the listener to get past the need to be helpful and to accept the reality that the complaining party is not able or willing to take steps to solve a problem or to move out of a negative space.

Indeed, when our capacity to listen has been exceeded, we need to find a way to end the conversation or move it in a different direction. The goal is to protect the self without acting at the expense of the other.

"On and On, Anon"

No how-to tip captures the quality of pure attention that occurs when we listen best, when we are fully emotionally present without judgment or distraction, when we are fully open and receptive to what the other person is saying without having to change, fix, correct, or advise.

We all are capable of much deeper levels of listening than we may ever tap into and it's well worth the effort -- listening well is at the heart of intimacy and connection. When we are able to truly listen, the other person feels validated and enhanced -- and we do too. Surely human consciousness would take a big leap forward if our wish to hear and understand were as great as our wish to be heard and understood.

But in everyday life, we can't always do that. Countless factors can make us want to stuff a sock in the other person's mouth or stick our fingers in our own ears. Adult daughters are especially sensitive to complaining mothers or mother's in law, and understandably so. The relationship between mother and daughter is never simple, and a daughter often has trouble sorting out where responsibility to her mother ends and responsibility to herself begins. Whether we believe that our mother gave us too much or not enough, it's painful to be confronted with her unhappiness and to feel that nothing we do makes any difference.

The trouble is, intensity breeds more intensity. Reactivity breeds more of the same, and lightening up can seem like a Herculean task. In mature moments, you feel empathic, non-judgmental and centered. You wouldn't think of turning away from someone in pain. But relentless focusing on an issue that only gets worse feels less like a real sharing of feelings and more like a primitive flow of anxiety going from one person to the other.

Sometimes, the other person may actually be at a loss about how to stay connected except through automatic complaints (or, in some cases, criticism and advice-giving). When we steer the conversation away from the habitual, we need to offer other avenues of connection. To do that, you need some coaching on how to approach an old conversation in a new way. Here are five key steps to moving on back without moving out.

Continued on page 2:  Rule #1: Speak From a Loving Place

 

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