I’ve often heard executives ask me “How can I learn to be a better listener?”
Some of them have also told me about a workshop they partook to learn a technique called “active listening.”
In my experience, techniques only take you so far. This is especially true when we experience too much tension.
Let me share the story of one of the most memorable events that happened during my 2012 book tour.
After my talk, a woman came up to me and said how much she loved the talk. I thanked her. She then said “I wish my husband were here with me.” to which I replied “Awww~ That’s so sweet…” Only to hear her say “No, what I mean is that he’s the one who needed to hear the talk, not me.”
I was surprised.
I thought my talk was about us realizing empathy, not demanding that other people realize empathy with us. I felt annoyed. The message I wanted to communicate was not being communicated. I felt misunderstood.
I then became contemptuous.
I thought to myself “Doesn’t she recognize the irony of her not yet having realized empathy with her husband herself while faulting him for not having realized empathy with her?” I could almost hear the sound of my inner eye roll.
But then I remembered that I just gave a talk about realizing empathy.
So I paused for a second, breathed deeply through my nose, and said “You sound frustrated,” to which she replied “Oh, yes I am!”
I stood there, nodding silently.
After what felt like an eternity, she continued.
“He passed away 2 years ago…”
I found myself silently agasp.
“We fought so much toward the end of his life. I didn’t know what to do. I was scared. He kept explaining why I shouldn’t feel so scared. He even said my life was going to be better without him… I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing. I couldn’t stop yelling at him…” I could see her welling up. “I wish he had just shut up and listened to me!” she continued.
Boy, did she humble me…
The Gordian Knot
In hindsight, it’s easy to notice the other irony in the above exchange: me not yet having realized empathy with her while expecting her to realize empathy with me. So easy to see this when other people do it. So hard to see it when we do it.
What a vicious cycle this creates…
I’ve come to think of situations like these as the Gordian Knot of inter-dependent relationships.
One manifestation of the Gordian Knot is as follows.
- Person A observes something she interprets as person B’s lack of respect for her needs.
- The observation is significant enough for person A that it leads to a tension in her body.
- Person A holds on to her tension as she starts to focus in on her feeling disrespected.
- Since person A is only focused on her own feeling disrespected by person B, this naturally makes it difficult for her to realize empathy with person B.
- Person A then protests person B’s lack of respect for her needs.
- Person B interprets this as a sign that person A does not respect his needs.
- The sign is significant enough that it leads to a tension in person B’s body.
- Person B then holds on to his tension as he starts to focus in on his feeling disrespected.
- Since person B is only focused on his own feeling disrespected by person A, this naturally makes it difficult for him to realize empathy with person A.
- Person B then protests person A’s lack of respect for his needs.
- Person A interprets this as a sign that person B still does not respect her needs.
- Thus, a Gordian Knot is formed.
In this woman’s case, she wanted him to say nothing and, perhaps, simply hold her in his arms.
He had good intentions, though. He probably wanted to alleviate her fear. So he tried to cheer her up and put a silver-lining around their situation by saying what he said.
At the same time, this was not what she needed. What she probably needed was to fully experience what she was feeling in all its complex glory and, perhaps, even to fall apart in the safety of her husband’s tender, compassionate, and confident embrace.
When this need was not respected. She yelled in protest. Now he probably felt his need to feel understood or even appreciated was disrespected. After all, he had good intentions. So to fix this, he tried to explain his intentions. Well, that still does not respect her needs. So she yells again. Thus, a Gordian Knot is formed.
It takes skills of noticing, of awareness, of empathy both with one’s own sense of “self” and that of “other” to recognize when a Gordian Knot is formed. It then takes a deliberate practice of respect to untangle it.
This is not easy.
At the same time, if you’re willing, you can learn it through practice.
Here’s a question you can ask yourself to get started.
What emotional need of the other person am I not respecting, because I’m only focused on my own feeling disrespected?”
May you break free from your Gordian Knot.
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Photo credit to Rachel