Hearing versus Listening

An enlargeable map of the State of Qatar
An enlargeable map of the State of Qatar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last Monday was a sobering moment for everyone living in or with connections to the nation of Qatar. Families lost children, spouses lost their partners, and a nation mourned the loss of 19 lives in a mall fire.

From the minute the news went out that “Villaggio was on fire” (the phrase everyone from students to coworkers was repeating) the questions began.

“Who knew about the fire and at what time?”

“Why had someone put a nursery upstairs?”

“Did the fire fighters have the equipment they needed?”

Several investigations are open and in the nature of tragedies, they will take months, if not longer to resolve. What is clear is that nearly every person connected to the emergency response of Villaggio suffered from a lack of necessary information. The first responders were not notified that children were inside; no floor plans for the mall were available; and while humans were outside working within the limited range of words, the fire inside was eating everything it in it’s path.

While this large scale, devastation was happening across town, I was having my own miscommunication at work. While the effects of my conflict were nowhere near the tragedy of the fire — no one died — the principles on which my afternoon (and most of the week) went awry were the same as what plagued the teams at Villaggio: I was hearing what people were saying but I wasn’t listening. Feeling unheard, the other group was returning the favor.

Assistive Listening Systems These systems tran.... (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The root of any miscommunication is the act of hearing without listening. Once I sat down at the mediation table, I got the other side’s perspective. At first it was hard not to get defensive: how could he have thought that’s what I meant? Did she not realize how aggressive her behavior was? I asked the people I was in conflict with to consider the situation from my point of view, later that evening or some other day, when they could.

When I got home, if I wanted to be fair, I had to do the same. I replayed the offensive scenarios over in my mind, this time with myself as the aggressor, and a tiny square of understanding opened. This led to another, to another, and to a new set of ground rules that has since helped us right tilting ship.

None of this would have happened if everyone in the situation had not performed a very mundane action: accepted responsibility.

I accepted the possibility that what were defensive actions on my part, after being repeatedly interrupted, were seen as offensive maneuvers. As hard as it was to  hear that I had some part in the communication meltdown, in hearing out the other side, I saw that’s all it was. Humans miscommunicating. No one was a villain; everyone wanted the same thing — respect.

In our litigation saturated global culture, when politicians are caught cheating on wives or elections and apologize with platitudes, I got an old fashioned lesson in listening. When’s the last time you listened to someone? Not the words they were saying but the message they were trying to convey? Do you assign and accept blame equally?


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A Life Lived Five Years at a Time

Me, 2008, that's a doctoral 'hood'.

January 2012 marks my return to a place I prepared for academically but never mentally: teaching university students. I went from undergrad straight into graduate school and then on to finish a PhD. Along the way I lost sight of what I really wanted because of the grumpy academics that lined the walls of the English departments I studied in. Their officiousness (and multiple marriages) were not desirable qualities.

If I had been honest with my twentysomething self, I would have also known that my academic persona didn’t jell with the person I thought myself to be. I was in a small circle of friends who married immediately out of college and began the business of setting up their own households. I had no such prospects in sight: only scholarships for more degrees.

“I’m never going to use this degree,” I said. “I’m getting it because I’m young, not married, and I can do it now.”

Your Best Year Ever?

Statue "Resolution" installed as part of a City of London’s Street Scene Challenge initiative.

There’s a lot of hemming and hawing about New Year’s resolutions: the last few years it’s become fashionable to be against them. Ninety percent of them are broken, experts say, and gyms love January as a month they rake in more income than at any other time of year.

If that’s what you’re looking for, this is a different kind of post. It’s a post in favor of making goals — which of course could be made during any month — and the momentum gained by a fresh start when the calendar turns a page, not forgetting that beginnings are also about perspective: 2012 is when the Mayans thought the world would end and this has led to some of the most entertaining tweet/quips on social media.

We have seen in the New Year as couple in a variety of exotic destinations: Dubai, Jordan, Ireland, Vegas, and Doha. This year, feeling pummeled by a hectic work schedule and life with a one year old, we passed aside bragging rights in Jamaica for a spa retreat in nowhere, GA.

If you interview (or read) successful people, from any field, they tell us over and over again that goal setting is what separates those with good intentions from high achievers. Goal setting and then the tenacity to meet those goals.We can’t blame the New Year for not giving us the resolve to make our dreams come true. We can only blame ourselves for not believing enough that we can live that life, the shimmering one full of the pleasures of doing what we are good at, where we are best selves, not owned by our possessions, but using them for good.

For me, the end of the year is a ritual, not imposed by others but by my tendency towards a love of nostalgia. 2011 was hard in many ways as it brought seismic changes in both the wide world and my own tiny one. Last year I wanted to be in better physical health (too much good eating and not enough movement) and devote myself to writing full time.

I set New Year’s resolutions most Decembers; evaluating what I would like to change about the way things have happened in the months to come. Writing in a journal daily, my rough, unedited, rambling, prayerful morning pages in the tradition of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, also helps prepare me for this annual tradition. An average journal takes me through about three months of ups, downs, and all arounds. When all the pages are used up, I return to the front and make a list of all the lessons I learned during those three months. This means four times a year I get to reflect on the themes, battles, victories that make up the twelve months of that particular stage of my life.

I have piles and piles of these books as I’ve been writing daily since 1996. Some day they may be read by our child(ren) or even grandchildren. For now they are a testament to time spent with drawing from the world in an effort to better understand it.

And that’s what I love about the New Year. You get a chance to stop and start again. Like pushing stop on a DVD. You have a choice: you can pick back up where you left off, or you can start anew. I have made exercise a weekly habit: some weeks have more workouts than others.  I quit my job to write full time and have published three ebooks. Instead of seeing the odd week, like this vacation, with no work outs (since I’ve left the workout DVDs — without which I am lost — at home) or the delay of a book I had scheduled to release in December, I choose to relish the weeks I hit my 120 minute goal of cardio and nearly 410 copies sold of three titles.

This gentleness to myself is something I picked up along the way. Something else  I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t set any goals at all.

What about you? Have you had success with New Year’s resolutions or goal setting at another time of year?

Oh and for 2012? I’d like more of the same please… I’ve still got some pounds to lose and stories to tell.