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What is listening?
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Pass it on
I'm reading
What is listening?
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Pass it on
I'm reading
What is listening?
Pass it on
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Articles
21 August 2020

What is listening?

Danielle Caruana aka Mama Kin on what she is learning about listening.

Written by Danielle Caruana

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Discussed in this Story

Last year I made a body of work with my dear friend and collaborator Tommy Spender. We called it, “Are You Listening?”.

At the time I thought I knew what that meant. I thought I understood the breadth and width of what could happen in the absence of listening or being heard. In fact, I was being schooled, and the lessons had only just commenced.

By the time the release date rolled around, the words “Are You Listening?” had become more of a daily chant, a mantra of sorts, a call to awareness, a bell toning through every street of my life.

I am now deep in listening work.
Neck deep in the learning of the true wisdom, and discipline, of listening.
It is stitched into every fibre of my day now.
Every detour or shortcut I try to take has become a collision waiting to happen. If only I’d just listened…

Listened to self.
Listened to limits.
Listened to cycles.
Listened to nature.
Listened to my children.
Listened to my husband.
Listened to my parents and siblings.
Listened to my friends.
Listened to people whose stories make me uncomfortable.

All those times they spoke.
Trying to reach me, trying to paint a picture of what was important to them, but I was too busy reacting, avoiding, policing, solving, defending, preparing, explaining, exclaiming, complaining, reclaiming, but rarely listening.

As if someone else’s words or message were only ever just a doorway to my own world, a trigger to my own experiences and defences, rather than an opportunity to hold another’s feelings and reflections for a moment in exquisite curiosity and generosity.

Have you ever felt deeply heard?
Can you recall the sense of it now?
What did the listener do, or not do, say or not say, that made you feel heard? Really heard?
How did they meet you just exactly where you were at that time, sans judgement or offering of a remedy?
I wonder if you can recall that now.

I can.

When I recall it, I feel a profound connection to a buried grief, and an immense gratitude to the listener.
I remember the moment vividly. I was in a car, I was a passenger, and it was raining heavily, the windshield wipers were struggling to keep a clear view for us. I was telling the driver a story about how I was still carrying pain over something they had done. I had told this person that exact story a million different ways, a million different times, and we always ended up going back and forth, in a tug of war of blame, grief, tension and ultimately returning to disconnection.

This time they did something different.
They pulled over.
They didn’t speak.
They listened all the way until the very end.
They let the silence between us sit.

It was incredibly uncomfortable. Painful. I knew they wanted to swat at it and look away from how ugly it was.
I resisted removing it, I resisted changing the shape of it.
We both just sat with it exactly as it was.
Then they said, “That’s a lot to hold. I can feel just a bit of it. That must have really hurt you, really wounded you deeply.”
Even recalling it now, many years later, I feel a deep sense of permission for my grief.
I feel that person daring to bear the weight of it with me, having resisted the urge to defend themselves, being with their own discomfort and narrative long enough to really be with me, and lighten my load, even if just for a moment.
The ultimate present of presence.
I was gifted a quality of relief in that moment, that I had been seeking for years.

I recently realised that I am not as skilled at listening as I would like to be, and so I have been in listening training.  I am doing Imago counselling with my husband, which is deep listening training. It is such an amazing tool, and something which has brought a lot more presence and quality of listening into my relationship with my partner, colleagues, kids and community. It is teaching me that it is not my job to solve or defend. It is training me to love through listening. It is actually a huge relief to let go of the responsibility of fixing, to scramble for solutions, or dive into the charge of defensiveness.

We practice the method daily, and often when we are doing it I realise that it is the first time that day that I am really seeing my partner, honouring his words and stories as his own, bearing witness as a loving friend and companion. And vice versa when he is in the listening seat and I am doing the speaking, the experience of a companion on my journey towards letting go, or understanding, or unravelling.

I’m learning that listening is enough.
‘Just’ listening is actually profound, because in ‘just’ listening, you are staying with the speaker. You are not asking them to quantify, qualify or justify their experience for you. However, you are offering them an opportunity to speak it out of their bodies, to give it form out of the abstract chaos of their chest, or the heaviness of their heart, or the screaming in their minds. There is infinite wisdom in their own words if you could perhaps give them a chance to hear themselves.

I’m still a beginner student, however this is what I’m learning:
I’m learning that as a listener this is my job.
I offer the speaker the chance to hear their own inherent wisdom and intelligence.
It might take a moment to get through some traffic jams, and it might get confusing and you might get lost on the way, but I trust you.
I trust your own profound wisdom awaits you at the end of this tangle.
Your wisdom may simply be the exhalation at the end of the scramble.
I’ll hold the silence at the end of it all (even if I have to chew the insides of my mouth apart to resist all urges and stay quiet and stay with you as the feelings unravel!)
I won’t fill it with my opinion, or even my solution, unless expressly invited.
It is my honour to listen to what is important to you.
Thank you for trusting me with your words.

Danielle Caruana

Danielle Caruana (Mama Kin), is an Australian singer-songwriter. She’s also Dumbo Feather alumni, read her conversation.

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