The Benefit of Doubt

Over the last few years I’ve become a close observer of how I interact with other people.

That sounds kind of stalker-esque and creepy.

What I mean is that I’m a lot more aware of what parts of a conversation I’m responsible for, what parts are completely out of my control, and which parts are imagined and therefore none of my business.

Yesterday I heard that I had been left off a list – I didn’t get the invite. It was a pretty big deal – big event, big emotions, old baggage. It was unintentional. Nothing was meant by it, but my mind didn’t want to let it be. It really wanted to turn this into something. It didn’t need me to raise a ruckus about it, but it wanted to chew on it and make it mean something hurtful. I turned to my friend literal listening.

What is literal listening?

blond-blurred-background-cars-825982Literal listening is paying close attention to all of the words that are actually spoken, asking for clarification as needed and, here’s the kicker, not inserting any additional words, interpretations, subtexts, feelings, hostility, or anything else you might be inclined to insert. You take in and respond to exactly what is said.

The key question to literal listening is: “What is (or was) actually being said? What words were used?” Notice there’s no: “What did so and so REALLY mean?” in that formulation. Literal listening assumes that speakers will say what they mean and that listeners will ask for clarification as needed.

Why is literal listening useful?

Literal listening protects our feelings, our energy levels, keeps us from wasting time, and allows us to focus on what is true and necessary. Literal listening does all of this by preventing us from getting into someone else’s business, and by that I mean what they think of us. Let me back up a little here because I don’t think I’ve talked about this for a while.

I firmly believe that what other people think of me is absolutely none of my business. It is an idea I personally got from a writer named Byron Katie, but I know it’s around in other places as well. What people have in their heads about me is their problem, not mine. When I spend a lot of time interpreting, inferring, assuming, and detecting, I am actually invading their privacy; let’s face it, while there seems to be less evidence of it these days, adults do self-edit sometimes, and that’s a good thing. If the person you are engaged with has chosen NOT to tell you what they think of you, shouldn’t they have that option? Mightn’t it be better that way?

There is an important effect here for the late night mind monkeys. Literal listening strips away all of the grist for our rotten story weavers and lets us simply face the facts as we actually KNOW them to be.

When is literal listening helpful?

Literal listening is particularly helpful when we’re interacting with the people in our lives who are difficult or with whom we have baggage: maybe we even know they don’t like us be we are tied to them in some way that makes no contact unavoidable. Maybe we know we don’t like them but haven’t quite managed to rearrange our social circles yet. Maybe it’s a co-worker who is difficult and unpleasant. Maybe it’s a boss who tends to be short with praise and long on condescending looks and deep sighs. Clearly there’s stuff there, but do we really want to enter into the kind of conversation we would have to have to clear it all up with ALL of those people? Would we even have that opportunity? I’m pretty sure there are a lot of work environments where team counseling is not an option. I know there are family situations where that would take years.

Literal listening allows us to engage with the people with whom we have baggage, real or imagined, and still accomplish the things we need to accomplish without taking on more emotional burden.

It allows us to interact with people with whom we have insecurities and maybe old wounds without taking on more hits.

It allows us to continue to function and take responsibility for what we do and say in environments that feel emotionally charged.

It allows us to find some room to simply be and be ourselves and requires adults who have a problem with that to actually come out and say something.

ask-blackboard-356079For me literal listening gives me a way to rewind the tape when my story teller gets rolling. When I am deciding what people think of me, what they REALLY meant, why they did what they did or said what they said or what they REALLY think and then looking for evidence for all of that horrible stuff, I can take a big deep breath and ask myself: “Do I know any of that? Is it true? Was it actually said? What WAS actually said? Am I creating a problem by invading his/her private thoughts? Am I making myself suffer by trying to figure out the subtext?” I can benefit from the doubt that arises when I ask myself these questions.

That doubt allows me to stop the storyteller, and to thank her for trying to protect me all of the time. I can give her a pat on the head and suggest she take a nap while I review the words that were actually spoken and remove all of the meanings I’m so tempted by old wounds and insecurity to add. I can choose, even if someone really IS being rotten, I can always choose to not take that in and make it part of me, and oh my how much better that feels.

 

Whose Battle Are You Fighting?

There have been a lot of hard things lately.

The news has become excruciating.

Some of our relationships are strained by p

olitics.

We’ve got problems and we can’t seem to even agree on what those problems are.

Our thoughts create problems

And that’s just the big stuff.

That doesn’t even get down to the every day hard, the busyness, the job, the elusive work-life balance.

It doesn’t even cover our romantic (or not romantic) relationships and our parenting.

It doesn’t even cover our chronic illnesses and hurts.

Things seem really hard.

And saying that there are difficult circumstances doesn’t begin to account for how difficult they can become due to the way we think about them.

 

How We Make Things Harder

During the last few months my husband and I have been attempting to renegotiate the division of domestic duties. Let me give you a little background. 10 years ago I decided to stay home with our twins and the I made that choice, I assumed most of the domestic responsibilities (because raising twins was clearly not enough). My husband became the breadwinner and I became the bread maker. We plugged along like that for some time. And he got busier, adding a side hustle (out of love) and eventually adding grad school (also out of love). I also added work (out of love) and eventually he whittled his way down to two occupations (side hustle moving forefront and grad school). As I began to nurture my practice and continued being the everything to all people, we felt the need to redistribute the burden.

Our acknowledgement of that need, however, didn’t make it easy to do.

We stalled.

We delayed (him I think because it was not top of mind for him and me perhaps because it seemed easier to just do things than to have a hard conversation about them).

We bickered about the bits that were falling through the cracks.

And I felt resentment growing, like an invasive weed.

And as my resentment grew, I thought of my mother and the women of her generation, so many of whom nurtured a garden of invasive resentment weeds because they felt that they had no choice. I thought of how much my position FELT like that. I thought about how things SHOULD be. And I fumed, growled, and cried, and left things undone out of spite. I grew short with him and with the kids. And I buried all of that in getting busy doing all of the things that poor me HAD to do. No time to be polite. No time to really engage. No time to have a real conversation.

And the a friend said just the thing I needed to hear. Actually 3 friends said similar things on the same day, which even I must concede sounds a little like divine intervention stepping in. All of these wise women asked me to reflect on my husband’ nature. “Is he an old-fashioned guy?” “Does he think you should have to do everything?” “Is he so swamped that he can’t even see what’s happening?”

Leaving the Story Behind

Arguments about HouseworkTheir wise questions pushed me to step out of the argument that I had created and to step back into a conversation with my reality, not my mother’s reality, not women’s reality, not a previous generation’s reality. I suddenly realized that a big part of what was making this so hard was me. I was turning a problem, a challenge, into a full-on ideological issue. I was defending women everywhere.

There was no need for me to do that in THIS particular case.

And when I stopped arguing for everybody’s reality, we were able to have a conversation, a real conversation. I was clear. I was heard. I was acknowledged, and now there’s a plan. When I stopped dragging all of these other people into the issue, when I stopped thinking it was bigger than it really was, when I adjusted my story to account for the reality of who my husband is, who I am, and how we operate, I was able to articulate my needs and my feelings and they were met with exactly the kind of reaction that I would have hoped for. It turns out I didn’t have to fight the power this time.

Why does that matter? Am I suggesting we all stop fighting for the big ideological issues? Absolutely not. Anybody who know me knows better than that.

What I am suggesting is that some problems, some challenges, some issues are just not that complicated or that hard. We get it all tangled up together. We come to the problem with our politics, our feelings, our baggage (and usually a few other people’s baggage as well) and we make it so complicated. Some problems just aren’t that hard.

Rest Into The Problem

I got a little e-mail from one of my mentors, Martha Beck, earlier this week that suggested that when you are stuck and things seem difficult, maybe it’s time to rest into the problem, to stop pushing so hard. And this feels like THAT to me. “Renegotiating” our domestic division of labor was something that I was pushing very hard on, not just because I wanted it done, but because there were principles at stake.

When I rest into the problem, when I get quiet, when I quiet the clamor of ideology, culture wars, activism and outrage, I see things differently. I don’t become a Stepford wife. I become the me who KNOWS how committed my husband is to equality. I become the me who KNOWS how hard it is to take on domestic tasks when you’re out of practice. I become the me who honors the scope of the work I’ve done for these 10 years by not imagining someone could just scoop half of it up and do it efficiently at the drop of the hat. I become the me that KNOWS that we, individually and together, are okay.

Rest can bring truth
When things get hard, what can we do? Rest into it. Get quiet. Reduce the clamor from the outside world. And from THAT space, learn what to do next. Learn what feels like ease and clarity and love and freedom. Learn what feels like truth that is only YOURS.