An Unexpected Inspiration
One evening my family and I stumbled into Half Price Books in Redmond, WA, after the fabulous happy hour at a local restaurant. We often walk around about while slightly “happy” just for fun and to walk off a bit of the joy, if you know what I mean.
When in a bookstore, which is an all too rare experience these days, I browse through the self-help and psychology books since that’s my interest, looking for tasty bits, inspiration, insights, etc. On this occasion, I happened upon “A Way of Being” by the founder of humanist psychology “Carl Rogers.” I found something that validated not only my beliefs but also my personal experience in a surprising way.
Rogers described his experience listening to others in a way that really resonated with me:
There is another peculiar satisfaction in hearing someone: It is like listening to the music of the spheres, because beyond the immediate message of the person, no matter what that might be, there is the universal. Hidden in all of the personal communications which I really hear there seem to be orderly psychological laws, aspects of the same order we find the universe as a whole. So there is both the satisfaction of hearing this person and also the satisfaction of feeling one’s self in touch with what is universally true.
Those who have been with me in groups have heard me say something like “for me, being in a group is like being at a symphony. Each person is their own unique instrument and has a particular sound or “vibe,” and this blends and harmonizes with others, or are perhaps discordant. Each individual is unique and contributes to the overall sense of the group – but the key thing is that it is a very rich and satisfying experience overall. One I enjoy very much.” So I was rather astonished to read a similar sentiment from Rodgers.
Listening to “who” rather than “what”
The story of another person is not as important as you might think. That is my chief objection to “talk” therapy – it is pretty inefficient when you can cut through the crap and get the essence of a person by listening to the “whole.” A good therapist is paying attention no only to the story, but to the bigger picture. There are, of course, individuals that need to be heard, were telling the story is the therapy, but that is another matter. In most cases, it’s not the details that matter – it’s the WHO THAT IS SPEAKING. What are they saying about their worldview, what’s important to them? What are they fighting for? What are they crushed by? They will tell you a thousand ways without words if you look and are present for it. And when you speak to someone coming from that kind of awareness, everything changes.
The late Ron Kurtz, creator of the Hakomi method of psychotherapy, use to teach a workshop called Loving Presence. In a facilitator training series I attended with him, there was an exercise “Seeing Through” that gets directly to this point. In this exercise, you break into small groups. One person is selected to be the actor. The others are observers. Observers are to be present with their experience of the actor and “see” the actor directly and clearly, without judgment. The actor is directed to take a walk a few steps across the room and on the way, pick up any object lying around, then put it down. Arriving at the small group of observers, sit down in front of them and recite – “Mary had a little lamb, it’s fleece was white as snow.”
(Keep in mind this exercise occurs after hours of mindful work. We were primed for this kind of exercise. This isn’t something we were asked to do just walking in off the street. It wouldn’t work if so.)
In my group, the actor was a very large, German man who was quiet but friendly in the group. Did I mention he was large? Football defensive back large. Duck your head at the door large. Yet, he had a gentle voice and demeanor that stood in stark contrast to his stature. A true gentle giant. That got my attention earlier. The difference in his voice and his physical body was like seeing a woman that could be a supermodel going out of her way to make herself unattractive and small – you KNOW something’s going on there. Contrasts stand out if you look for them, and they matter.
The observers took a moment to get mindful and watched him as he gently got up and walked across the room in carefully measured steps. Then very, very carefully, he picked up a glass of water which looked tiny in his hands. He then sat down slowly and in front of us, and in a soft voice, almost like he was talking to his granddaughter, said, “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.” We were all silent for a few moments pondering this experience.
What stood out to me was how exceedingly careful this big guy was in his movements. He was big, but not graceful. It seemed as if he was aware of every part of his body and afraid he would bump something and have it crash. I thought – of course, he has learned to be careful. He is a big guy, if he bumps something, it matters.
The phrase “bull in a china shop” came to mind, but imagine a self-aware bull moving through a china shop in a way so as not to disturb anything. That was this guy.
I took a chance and communicated these thoughts to him, without referencing the bull, just that he looked like he was being cautious and had a gentle, almost curated demeanor. He seemed genuinely touched. Slowly, as caefully as he walked – he started gently crying saying, “yes, it’s just like that.”
He learned it was crucial to be careful. That probably was not an easy lesson.
I took a chance, and let my curiosity lead, which is one of my secrets for connecting with people. In this case, it worked well. “I wonder. It seems like you may know what it’s like to hurt someone and not mean to” – and that was the centerpiece for him. He was desperately careful in moving around cause somehow in his life; he had unintentionally caused some harm. This gently giant of a man was trying very hard in his life to be responsible physically and not hurt anyone. And, I would guess that in his life, he organizes his thoughts around, “If I am not careful, people will be hurt. I can’t really express myself enthusiastically physically. It is dangerous for me to play with others.”
When you are in the right state of mind (I would say these days, the right state of being), just observing someone do simple actions can reveal a great deal about them. Rogers said,
“…because beyond the immediate message of the person, no matter what that might be, there is the universal.”
How to Change the World
When you are present with another person, you can hear and see the universal speaking and moving through them, and talking to the universal in you. When you are in touch with that and respond from a place of being connected to such a unifying force – it changes you. It changes them. It changes everything. In this way, the world can be changed. From such a simple act as just being present and really listening – while it may seem like something very passive – it is quite the opposite. It is extremely active and connecting. A unifying force in a divisive age. This is the very heart of compassionate, mindful communication. It will change you. It will change others. It will change the world. There is no other way home.