" I can't, I just can't. It is not my kind of languages, I don't feel like being authentic." Laughed my colleague Steven, shook his head, half jokingly half in despair.
Steven and I were in middle of rehearsing a role play of "Listening with mind, heart and body", a workshop my team gave to the staff of Prudential, multi-national insurance company with more than 1000 employees in Singapore . We wanted to demonstrate the four levels of listening through a typical husband and wife interaction. In a nutshell, four levels of listening are:
Level 1, downloading: it is a habitual reaction made by old opinions and assumptions: "I can't wait to tell you my view!"
Level 2, factual listening: it is about taking notice of the difference in perspectives and sharing this difference. "My view is different from your view, here is my advices!"
Level 3, empathetic listening: Empathic listening is about seeing through another person's eyes and building emotional connection: "Forget my own agenda, I see what you see and feel what you feel."
Leven 4 generative listening: it is about inquiry, advocacy, a constructive mindset and deepened connection to move to a shared goal together. "How can we move forward together?"
In our role play, the Husband and the Wife both come back from work feeling exhausted, after they finish their dinner, wife wants to share with husband about something at work that frustrates her. Here is the script of the role play:
(Level 1 listening)
Wife: There is something happened at work today, someone in my team was upset because of some mis-communication.
Husband(listening while watching a car program on the iPad): ok. Is that the same girl you talked about last time? Poor thing, she is so young, must feel overwhelmed by all the mis-communication happening at work.
(Level 2 listening)
Wife: Yes, it is the same girl. I do think she has a reason to be upset. Everyone has been very picky about her. She really had an emtional breakdown today and bursted in tears in the office. Are you listening?
Husband(put down the iPad): yes, I am. I had a tough day and kinda feel tired, really want to switch off my brain for now. Where were we? Oh that girl! From you described about her, I think she should either take a break and sign up for some meditation or yoga retreat, or go and get herself a mental help. You cannot help her and you shouldn’t either.
(Level 3 listening)
Wife: Oh please don’t provide any solutions before you understand my concern fully. If you have so much stress at work, why can’t you share with me?
Husband: Ok ok, I am sorry I made you upset. I don’t want to bore with all my work issues. You look really stressed. I can see you really need to get this thing out of your chest. So tell me why are you so concerned about this girl?
(Towards Level 4 listening)
Wife(a little calmer): I am stressed out too. I hired that girl and I cared about her well-being. I really don’t know how to help her as her boss, it is frustrating. I know you probably don’t know how to help her either. Maybe I will figure it out along the way when I talk about it, can you just let me talk about this? you don’t have to give me any solution.
Husband: Of course, let me get us a nice pot of tea, I will lend you my listening ears, maybe that will make us both feel better. x
Steven was very good with the acting during the level 1 and 2, he was even able to improvise with his own script and style. But when it came to level 3 and level 4, he was stuck. He found it difficult to remember the script and even uncomfortable to adjust his body language when he read from the script.
Before becoming the chief operation officer at School of Gumption, Steven was a senior executive at Prudential. He was seconded to our team following the career switch plan of Prudential made for Prudential employees. Steven is a brilliant leader with high diligence, discipline and commitment, he has a high level of self-awareness and is capable of identifying his learning gap, being honest about it and collecting constructive feedback for his growth. One of the learning gaps Steven identified is the practice of empathy. He often found it quite a struggle to relate his feeling with others. In fact, Steven is not alone. In this massive industrialised world, most of the problems need to be fixed with efficiency and speed, after so many years in business corporate environment chasing numbers, productivity, growth etc... the emotion is de-sensitised. "Get the numbers....don't get emotional." "Get the task done....don't entertain excuses!" people's emotion and feelings are not part of the solution, they are hindrances and weaknesses, especially for man. When we are used to this type of non-humane way of interacting, we apply it not only to our work and school, but also to our personal life.
This role play is actually a real life scene I have experienced with my own husband again and again in the past 18 years of marriage. I have encountered countless passive listening of level 1 and level 2 from him, sometimes even level 0 (not listening). This is not because he does not love or care about me, quite the opposite he cares about me enormously. Like many husbands, he steps into the role of the bread-winner by default and contributes to the stability and wellness of the family by working hard and sacrificing a lot of resting time and family time. As the result, I could focus on my entrepreneurship journey and world-changing mission, our kids could go to the expensive international school, at the same time, lose touch and connection with him.
Our older son went to university in Europe nearly 2 months ago. We missed him terribly and Facebook messenger became our main way of connection. One morning I woke up at 6am and my son was still online, he was curious why I got up so early, I told him I wanted to use my time wisely by building boundaries and disciplines for the things that matter to me the most, such as writing, mindfulness practice, spending quality time with my family and friends. He sighed, "Mom, It’s given me some perspective too. I realise how little time I spent with dad. He is always working, I never really got to talk to dad that much and I found it very strange." Hearing that, my tears couldn't stop flowing out. Later I shared his words with my husband, he just nodded and didn't say a thing. At that moment, I felt a deep sense of empathy with my husband and the shared pain with him of missing our boy for not being able to stay around him and see him everyday. I sensed the helplessness in my husband of not being able to express his emotion and the struggle to establish connections with his loved ones and HIS OWN NEEDS. I used to disengage and walk away from conversations with him when he did not listen, now I wanted to help to facilitate his change, by working with him, not by forcing and pushing him, not by telling him what to do and doing it for him, definitely no longer by ignoring him. I do this because we are connected beings and our happiness is inter-dependent.
As the first step, we checked what is happening in our life.
I shared with him I observed that he isolated himself from us by burying his face behind screens a lot and shutting himself down from all interactions with family on regular basis. I asked him whether he felt the same. It took him quite a while to "admit" that, and he shared that he had been experiencing some turbulences and high level of stress from work. He could not get his mind off from the work, he suffers from insomnia every night and headache from time to time. His way of dealing with stress, calming down and restoring energy is through disengaging with people and emotions at home and switching off his brain.
Second step, we identified what has been affected.
I told him although I care deeply about our relationship, I felt there has been a big disconnection between him and me, him and our children. I did not feel appreciated, listened to and seen. I felt anxious of being locked out from his "world" and often found that I had nothing to talk about with him except for daily chores. And I felt sad that he missed the time of being deeply engage with the growth of our children because I know how much he longs for being together with them. My husband nodded and agreed this was also how he feels.
Thirdly, I asked him "What do you need to do to achieve the kind of marriage relationship you desire"?
This is where he got stumble upon. He started to think all the obstacles that are blocking him: His work is very demanding; he is in lack of communication skills; his physical strength might be reducing as part of getting old; he misses our older son a lot; our rented flat does not make him feel very homey; there is not much social activities in Singapore for him... etc. Many of these obstacles seem to be too big to tackle, while others are beyond his control. I asked him to rest assure that it is not about him and me making the problem disappear as quick as possible, in fact, it is not about him, it is not about me, it is about OUR life, it is about WE listen to the potential together and trusting WE share enough love and wisdom to make this relationship sustainable.
I have a friend who shared in his blog about the experience of practicing Metta (loving kindness), the practice was cheerful and easy, he felt himself "overflow with love". One week later he stopped the practice. The overflowing sense of loving kindness for his fellow humans quickly waned and he found himself angrier than before. Ultimately he reached to the enlightenment that "Metta meditation was never intended to bring about greater perfection in a direct manner, but rather, through the winding path of awareness, guilt, and slow change." I thought it was a beautiful life journey he went through, because personal transformation is never an easy and quick fix. Actually it is not about about eliminating all our negative emotions towards ourselves and others; it is about having a clear intention of change, then having faith to yourself, making baby steps, not judging our mistakes and foolishness, simply being aware how your emotions come and go and the little tiny changes you make to your life.
As for my husband, he decided to tap on my shoulder every morning and said something with a naughty and awkward grin, "You look very beautiful today, my dear!" This "compliment" always cracks a smile on my face, I thought to myself, "He is trying!" :)
Isn't it a lovely way to start the day to change the world?