This current Weekly Reframe is written by someone very dear to my heart; my mother, Deborah K. Ward, LCSW-C. She is a certified advanced Imago Relationship Therapist who specializes in teaching families and couples new skills to repair old wounds and create lasting experiences of true emotional safety. This article is about the power of good listening and how it can transform any difficult relationship into a thriving one.
My young daughter walks with me around her grandmother's Florida community. We pass lots of people riding bikes, playing tennis, on their way to one place or another. We are on holiday sharing mother-daughter time, holding hands. She shares stories about her life, about friends and feelings, ideas and dreams. I listen at first but then find I am drifting, soothed by the sound of her voice, the cadence of our walk, the warm summer day. My attention slips away, and I am unaware that I am no longer tracking what Jen is saying. She squeezes my hand and gently brings me back.
"Mommy, are you listening?" she asks.
"Yes, of course, Sweetheart, I (her trusted listener) am always listening to you.
"What did I say, Mommy?"
"Well... I... You... Um... Err..."
I frantically search my memory but her words are not available. I think to myself, "I was just listening. My ears were open... What is the problem? Why can't I tell her what she said?" I am embarrassed. I search for an appropriate parental response, wanting to suggest I've really got this handled, but find myself falling deeper into the abyss of insincerity. Her story is nowhere in my sight, but I want to minimize my failing so I emphasize, instead, brief impressions of what I think she said. I show a vague, yet earnest effort, hoping this will satisfy. But Jen, the wise girl she is... knew what she knew.
"You didn't listen, Mommy".
I want to argue the point and hide from this moment, yet
her hand holds securely to mine. She does not pull away. Her love is unconditional and when I realize this, I feel ashamed to have let her down. A silence sets in between us...
"You were pretending to listen Mommy."
The light of her simple conclusion illuminates the moment. I appreciate the chance she takes in sharing her honest experience.
"I'm so sorry, Jen. I thought I was paying attention... but I can't really put into words what you said."
No response. My heart is sinking. We walk further in silence. I judge myself and feel despair.
"Mommy," she says, "I want you to listen... like my diary. "
"How does a diary listen?" I ask.
She considers her response. "I write down what I have to say and when I'm done I close my diary. Later, I come back and what I said is still there, the same as I said it. I love my diary because it doesn't change anything. It always keeps my words the way I wrote them. I want you to listen like that, Mommy. So I know you can say what I said, when I ask you again. Okay?"
In her example, Jen expressed a principle of listening and in that moment, I was given another chance. I promised my daughter that day I'd find a way to listen and remember what she said. I knew this would take more then a promise.
I had blocks to listening from daydreaming to defensiveness. Like many parents of my generation and our parents before us, we believed children were to be seen and not heard while the adults thought they were entitled to react, blow up, withdrawal, stonewall, criticize, judge and blame us for anything they didn't like hearing. This kind of wounding doesn't leave marks on the body, but it does leave scars on the heart.
There was another part for me to understand. How to listen without an agenda and stop waiting for my turn to prove a point. I was the parent and therefore in charge, but I mistakenly thought my daughter should see things my way. My early education taught me that sending a message was far more valuable than receiving one, and being right far more important than being curious. However, in my job as a therapist, I saw countless couples and families in trouble because nobody had the skills to bridge the gap between their differences and misunderstandings.
By the time Jen was a young teen, our family had been through so much change, including the end of my marriage to her father. Often angry and frustrated, forced to live her own private truth inside herself, Jen was pulling away more and more. I'd try with my best skills to keep connection open, but when she sensed I was listening with an agenda, she would immediately close down. With all my years of training, nothing was helping me get through to her.
I wanted my daughter to trust that I intended to understand her - but how? And was the truth after all, that I mostly wanted her to accept me however I behaved?
I needed a model to practice. An infrastructure to learn in steps that would help me stay with her inner story without getting distracted by the story going on inside my own head. Then came my answer: Imago Relationship Therapy. Developed by Harville Hendrix, PhD, Imago teaches a technique that promises to repair relationship wounds by demonstrating active listening and emotional safety.
The training itself was offered over 5 weeks throughout the year. On the first day, we arrived presenting our professional selves. We were ministers, clinical social workers, psychologists, life coaches and psychiatrists. But to our surprise, we were all told that in order for us to really learn the method, we would have to put down our professional facades and allow access to our most difficult personal material.
Imago teaches a three step process to listening; mirroring, validating and empathizing. In turn, the model encourages interdependency, with families no longer parent centered or child centered but instead, relationship centered.
For the first time, I got to learn what it was like to be listened to in a way that felt fully satisfying. My thoughts and feelings mirrored back to me with a true sense of understanding and empathy. Then I got to practice doing the same in return.
With these new skills of safe listening, there is an absence of attack and withdrawal, blaming or meanness. This opens to a new paradigm of emotional safety in relationships where all parts are respectfully welcome and self expression is progressively liberated.
As I continued with my study, I learned the value of building bridges between the world of myself and another human being. To honor each other with a dedicated visit to the other person's thoughts and feelings without judging or blaming them for being different than our own.
I learned to apply curiosity with phrases like "tell me more" and "what is it like to be in relationship with me,"while holding space for the other person's response. And by imagining I was a visitor to their 'inner world', I didn't have to battle the old belief that there is only room for one truth.
As a parent, I discovered humility in realizing my child has her own story first, an inner life she must protect. I've become more curious about her human being-ness and the experience of life unique to her as she travels through different stages of personal development. With my practiced skills, I've learned to listen, reflect and validate her point of view in a way that has helped her feel more understood and less alone.
There is a high honor in allowing children their self expression. It seems a simple thing but it is not when we so easily block them with fear of our judgment, ridicule, blame or withholding. The ability to liberate our children emotionally while being responsible parents is a truly powerful skill and a proven pathway to significant family healing.
Learning how to be Jen's diary has been the best gift, not only to our mother/daughter relationship, but in all of my significant personal connections. I am a better friend, counselor, relative and wife. I am also better at letting people know when I do not feel heard or understood, gently teaching the model to others as a way to bring liberation to our emotional baggage and a deeper sense of closeness.
Today, I proudly teach Imago listening skills to parents, teachers, doctors, clergymen, husbands, wives, students and children. It is an honor to help facilitate a deeper bond between people who deeply care for one another but don't know how to feel heard or understood.
If you are interested in deepening one or more of your relationships by learning how to be a better listener, I encourage you set up a session. Together, we can practice safe listening skills that will provide you with tools for long lasting, emotionally healthy relationships.