How my Mother Used Active Listening with her Screaming Infant

Sometimes my mom tells this story:

I was a baby. My dad was out of town, so it was just me and her. It was the middle of the night and I could not be calmed. Screams poured from my little lungs. My mother was desperate: “What do you need?” She begged me. She checked my diaper, tried to feed me, to switch my position. Nothing. I would not let up.

After what felt like forever, it suddenly occurred to my tired mama that she had only one role: to be with me. She picked me up and held me. She didn’t say “shhh shhh.” She stopped trying to fix it. She just listened to me and promised to stay during this hard moment. Eventually we both fell asleep.

I love this story, though I don’t remember it. I love the picture of my mom choosing to believe me that something was upsetting even though she couldn’t figure out exactly what. Maybe that’s why these days when I call my mom with even an ounce of stress in my voice she immediately knows something’s up, saying, “What’s wrong?”

And maybe that’s why I am now such a proponent of active listening. Listening sometimes gets categorized as a “nice” thing, as often happens with skills relegated to the feminine. Because as a society we have been trained to view females (and by extension, feminine skills) as lesser than males (and male skills), we often think of “feminine” as less important and less challenging.

But the truth is listening is not something that all females or all people naturally know how to do. It’s something we learn from those around us– like all language and communication. If we didn’t get listened to supremely well as kids, then we probably received the message that listening isn’t always important.

Listening is more than nice. Listening can change everything. Sometimes when I talk to my friend Alison after a hard day, I can feel my whole body change as she listens to me. My spine straightens. I remember to drink water. I start believing in myself again. When we talk, Alison practices active listening: she hears me, repeats back what I say, confirms that she understood, and asks if I want advice or just to keep talking. She knows me, and has paid attention, so she also knows how I like to be listened to. Alison uses these hard skills, and it makes a difference in my life.

I like to imagine a world where everyone listens well all of the time. Where we all feel heard in every conversation. Where we all get supported to do our best thinking. These are fertile conditions for creating real change.

Like any skill, we can re-train ourselves. We can learn to listen actively, to affirm, to ask clarifying questions, to resist the temptation to always fix, and sometimes, like my mom, just to commit to listening and being there.

Talia Cooper is the former program director at Ma’yan in Manhattan. She leads anti-oppression and skill-building workshops for educators, parents, and high-schoolers.  She can also be found playing music on Facebook and YouTube.

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