Creating Closeness . . . Through Listening

2018 February 22

Listening is the least valued, most misunderstood, and yet the most potent form of communication. Even though most people put “listening” at the top of their resumes, those of us who are in caregiver relationships know that listening isn’t just about remembering something and it surely can’t be reducible to a “skill.” No, it’s so much more than that. For caregivers, listening is vital to relationships because it is . . .

An Invitation . . . Comprehension is applauded because facts and information can be recorded and transcribed, memorized and regurgitated. But the kind of listening that caregivers engage in is distinct because it isn’t only about what is said, but what is made possible.

Invitational listeners create conditions for sharing and understanding. This involves a willingness to be close enough to another person to invite the possibility for genuine and authentic sharing. And sharing isn’t only about words—it’s about an awareness of your loved one that allows them to communicate in ways most others don’t ever notice because they are preoccupied with the exchange of information.

I’m not simply talking about physical presence, but a presence of attention that is open to what is possible. Openness is so scary because it means not being able to predict or control what will happen in an interaction. This is the very reason that invitational listening is so rare—it asks the invitational listener to . . .

 Turn away from the world—yes, someone else might be texting or calling you—by turning toward, completely and wholly, this person.

 Allow the spontaneity of the moments that follow the invitation to defy time constraints.

Invitational listening isn’t a one-time event that can be scheduled. It’s not something that takes place in a meeting room or during an interview. And it can’t be reducible to mere information and words. Invitational listening means a willingness to open ourselves up to another, rejecting all else around us, allowing personal agendas and convenience to evaporate into an embrace of this moment, this person, this possibility for connection—now. Listening is the language of attention, and invitational attention creates an undeniable motive for sharing and connecting in ways that too often go unnoticed.

To Create Closeness . . .

Listening for comprehension is great for taking tests or remembering directions but that kind of listening is too focused and restrictive. It depends almost entirely on the assumption that another person knows exactly what they want listened to as if what they were going to share were a one-time event ready for prime time.   These listeners listen only to what is said in that moment, paying special attention to the new and different, the bottom line, or the main takeaway. Listening like this is loaded with conditions and can’t help but get in the way of genuine connection . . .

“I just can’t handle hearing that right now.”

 “I don’t call anymore because I always get off the phone feeling so stressed.”

 “I can’t handle the awkwardness anymore. Sometimes, there’s just silence. And I don’t know what I’m supposed to say or do.”

On the other hand, creative listening is so distinct because it isn’t about changing or editing what is shared in our presence. This kind of listening requires a willingness to be near another as they voice their fears and concerns and anxieties and vulnerabilities. To be near another during their disorientation. Not to change them or silence them or sanitize their stories and experiences, but to know that our willingness to listen to the apparent senselessness of the moment is necessary for creation, connection, and sense making. Making sense is never achieved in private. It’s always something created with another—out loud, in a shared presence of unconditional attention, over time, as drafts of our selves are shared and modified, reclaimed and revised, edited and altered.

Unlike other types of listening, creative listening almost always involves awkwardness and fear and anxiety and uncertainty because this type of listening is about closeness—not comprehension.

 That Transforms Both People . . .

 Caregivers realize that listening is always relational—an invitation to create closeness. Listening isn’t simply about paying attention to finished stories and eloquent statements. It’s a willingness to be near another as they are unfolding and the stories that once made sense are redrafted and remade. More than most, caregivers know that listening is an invitation to make something—together. Your everyday willingness to listen is a radical act because it oftentimes occurs when the world around no longer believes your loved one needs to be listened to. You—and your presence and attention—disagree. You know something others don’t—listening is transformative for both you and your loved one. Transformation through listening isn’t a public act to be seen and liked by others. Transformation unfolds when we open ourselves to being near another precisely when we have no idea what can be made and created—together.


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4 Responses leave one →
  1. February 23, 2018

    Dr. White, thank you for this superb post on listening. There are so many helpful insights in the posts that it’s difficult to point out just one, but I especially like your conclusion, “You know something others don’t—listening is transformative for both you and your loved one. Transformation through listening isn’t a public act to be seen and liked by others. Transformation unfolds when we open ourselves to being near another precisely when we have no idea what can be made and created—together.”

  2. February 25, 2018

    Another beautifully written piece, Dr. White! As ill people need to be listened to and heard, so do their caregivers. If only friends and family would just take time to listen to the caregiver and the struggles of his/her life without feeling they need to offer a quick fix to the problems. Active listening and caring IS a fix in its own way.

  3. February 26, 2018

    Thank you, Terri! Sage advice.

  4. February 26, 2018

    Thank your ongoing support and wisdom, Dr. Frederick!

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