The Gift of Courageous Vulnerability

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”  ― Brené Brown

“Listen to me!” we demand.

“Why won’t you listen to me?” we cry out.

“Now listen here, cowboy.” We reply with defensive offense.

We all want to be listened to. As I wrote last month, listening is at the heart of all relationships. To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. The act of listening taps into a deeper essence of being one with another – you share a oneness that precludes backgrounds, religions, cultures and class. In that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of another, welcoming without judgement, the reality of their life. The act of listening leads to new understanding. It allows us to connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. It may even reveal opportunities for our own growth and inner healing.

Listening, really listening, is not a passive activity.  To be a good listener you need an inner strength and confidence to not need to prove yourself with wise declarations, witty statements, or surface level sympathy. An effective listener does not need to make her presence known other than to let the one being listened to know that she is ready to receive, to welcome, and accept what the other has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear his own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.

In short, being a good listener takes work. It can be an emotional exercise and a cathartic experience for both parties. It can also be a frustrating exercise.

Yes, we all want to be listened to, but are we cognizant of how what we are saying (or not saying) is being heard?

The act of listening requires someone else – the transmitter-  being willing to share –  to give of themselves – to be vulnerable – to be honest with themselves and their listener if they want the listener to understand what they are trying to express.

Do you cross your arms in defense while hoping your partner will take you into theirs? Are you feeling lonely and withdrawn but instead of sharing this you tell someone you don’t care for crowds? Do you hide your discomfort in a situation with laughter rather than stating you are uncomfortable with that kind of language or direction of the conversation? If you are feeling pain but instead express what seems to be joy, your listener cannot help but misread your conflicting messages or miss your need to be listened to in the first place.

If we want to be heard so badly, why do we struggle so to share? For one, it is scary! Readily letting down our walls of defense sets us up for hurt, humiliation, denunciation, and personal attack – at least that is what experience has taught us.  Secondly, being vulnerable, opening ourselves up – exposing our fears and frailties – is not a natural part of our societal customs. We are taught to be brave, to carry ourselves with esteem, to put on a good front, and make a good impression.

For myself, even though I came from a loving and supportive family – I was raised to not be a burden on others, to not let my troubles become a focus for anyone else. My brother and I were raised to be “good, solid kids” and as such, though life could be hard and even unfair at times, we faced our struggles on our own –  it built character. It wasn’t until much later in life, after most of my human “frailties” had been exposed in ways far more telling than any conversation could lay bare, that I found myself seeking someway to share what was really on my heart. The trouble was, I didn’t know how.  Fortunately, the church I attended at the time offered a course entitled “Non-Violent Communication.” Ironically, the class name was later changed to Compassionate Communication – because none of the attendees wanted to admit that they communicated violently or were recipients of violent communication! In truth, we were all victims of and participants in this form of “communication” and we were all hurting, badly, in the aftermath of communication gone bad.

Indeed, communication – both the acts of transmitting and listening – has incredible power – the power to heal and the power to maim. Those who haven’t been heard by others – especially those close to them – feel they have been invalidated, that their thoughts have no real worth, that their presence in others’ lives really doesn’t matter, that their troubles are inconsequential, and their goals lacking.

Likewise, those who demand to be heard but fail to be honest in their expression and  then cast offense or blame on those around them when they fail to read their mixed signals invite the exact opposite response to their need to be heard.

Communication can be a powerful force for good when done well and a powerful force for evil when done poorly or not at all. We all have the capacity to engage in violent communication – that which inflicts pain – and compassionate communication –  that which heals.   We are born with the tools to communicate but not the skills to use them. Thus, we learn as we go. The environment in which we learn to communicate will shape us and the nature of our relationships for life.

We all have been bruised by communication failures – some bruises naturally go much deeper than others. What each person brings to the dance of understanding is the great enigma of our past communication experiences. Learning to dance with one another to  music of the spoken and the understood heart is the secret to communicating with compassion.  It means having the courage to lay aside our need to be right as the listener and the courage to be vulnerable so that we can be lifted up and understood as the listened to. True strength is hidden in our mutual vulnerability.  To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. But there is another gift of equal value – that you the courageous vulnerable one can give the good listener – your trust. When both are given freely, you will find yourself in the sacred space of giving and receiving, the place where true healing and true relationship are found.

Let your light so shine.

The Immense Grace of Listening

“Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.”  – Pope Francis

As I was out running a few mornings ago, I found myself listening. Not to the latest news or my favorite podcast or even Vivaldi (truly some of the best music to run to – try it!). No, I found myself listening to the chorus of chickadees and sparrows breaking the silence of a snow blanketed earth with their morning songs. In that moment, I felt the icy grip of this long, dark winter loosen its bonds on my soul. I wondered if they knew I was listening to their melodies. I wondered if they were responding to my conversation with God. I wondered if they could ever know what a gift they had given me in the act of listening and being listened to. It reminded me of the deep conversation I had with a good friend the night before, one filled with honesty and pain, hope and laughter. As the sun peaked over the mountain top and warmed the frosted valley and my frostbit face, I had a spiritual awakening. I realized that I had been heard.

I know that God always hears my prayers, but at times I don’t always feel like He is listening to me. This time I did, and the feeling of being listened to, of being heard, of being accepted and not judged for my thoughts and insecurities did more for me than any vain attempt to fill the silence with bluster and avoid the uncomfortable intimacy of deep conversation. God’s voice is not always something we can hear or want to hear. His voice reveals to us our deepest truths about who we are – and though that may be painful we also hear that we are His.

At the heart of all relationships is the act of listening.  To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. To listen to someone is to tap into a deeper essence of being one with another – you share a oneness that precludes backgrounds, religions, cultures and class. For in that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of who they are, welcoming without judgement, the reality of their life. The act of listening leads to new understanding. It allows us to connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. It may even reveal opportunities for our own growth and inner healing.

Indeed, the act of listening has incredible power. Anyone who feels they haven’t been listened to can give testimony to this. Those who haven’t been heard by others – especially those close to them –  feel they have been invalidated, that their thoughts have no real worth, that their presence in others’ lives really doesn’t matter, that their troubles are inconsequential, and their goals lacking. Indeed, listening can be a powerful force for good when done well and a powerful force for evil to take hold in someone’s life when done poorly or not at all.

I must admit, I am not the best listener. To be a good listener you need an inner strength and confidence to not need to prove yourself with wise declarations, witty statements, or surface level sympathy. An effective listener does not need to make her presence known other than to let the one who needs to be heard know that she is ready to receive, to welcome, and accept what one has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear her own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.

The late Roman Catholic priest Henry Nouwen describes the act of listening as spiritual hospitality. “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”

Having experienced the healing power of being heard, I am intent on becoming a better listening presence in the lives of others. I think the world needs more listeners – those willing to engage in an exchange from the deepest level of our humanity. Perhaps if we really listened we might all feel more at home with others and ourselves, comforted and encouraged by the grace and peace of authentic relationship.

Listen and let your light so shine.