I think I am becoming a better listener during this pandemic period. At least I have become a better listener with birds. I notice the sounds of birds more than ever before when I’m in the woods with my dog. I sometimes even take the time to tell the birds, “You sound great this morning.” I have always admired birds and their ability to fly, but this is the first time I have appreciated their sounds so much. I’m hoping my appreciation for bird sounds will carry over to human sounds, since listening is obviously a big part of my job. In evaluating my listening skills as a psychologist, I might be better at detecting emotions that keeping track of details. With birds, there really aren’t any details for me to keep track of since I don’t know what they are saying.
However, I do get a sense that they are saying something to each other, if not to me. My sense is that the small birds have the most to say. When I come across a hawk, it seems mostly silent. I saw a hawk the other day and it felt like some kind of omen, not that I know enough about omens to be any more specific. After encountering the silent hawk, I recalled one of my favorite Zen proverbs: Whenever you speak, always make sure it is an improvement upon silence. I realize this probably isn’t everyone’s favorite Zen proverb, since a lot of people like processing their thoughts out loud and aren’t really concerned with improving silence. I also realize that most people probably don’t have favorite Zen proverbs.
I didn’t happen to come from a family of Zen proverb fans—or a family of particularly good listeners. My dad was a chronic lecturer, which taught me to tune him out and be a fake listener. I am mindful never to do any fake listening as a therapist, because I don’t think people should have to pay for the experience of feeling psychologically alone. At least I want to give my clients the same respect and attention that I give to the birds in the woods. From my experience, problems with listening are often rooted in problems with interest. Bad listeners tend to care too much about themselves and too little about the other person who is talking. Being a good listener takes humility. You can’t be a good listener if you’re busting at the seams with self-importance—because you’ll naturally feel that other people should be listening to you.
If you suspect you’re busting at the seams with self-importance, you might want to consider working in Palliative Care since people who are dying aren’t going to be impressed with what you’ve accomplished or how important you supposedly are. They’ll only be impressed with how present you are. Listening is about making yourself present and available. It is about appreciating humanity by appreciating what it’s like to be in one person’s shoes. I have made a career of trying to appreciate what it’s like to be in the shoes of other people. Although I have worked with a diverse group of clients, I have found their stories to be more similar than different. When listening deeply, I feel like I sometimes hear a universal voice that transcends religion, race, gender, and politics. It is a special experience for me when I hear the ancient voice of humanity through my clients. Sometimes people view listening as something you do for another person. I view it as a chance to cultivate the calmness and curiosity we all need to stay connected and deal with such challenges as a pandemic.