Here. Now. What I hear:

The low, deep growl Fizzle makes when she hears something far off, something I can not detect.

The soft beep of the coffeemaker, alerting me my cup is ready.

A lone cricket.

A female cardinal, chirping incessantly. (She nags, oh how she nags.)

Leaves rustling in a breeze I can barely feel on my skin.

Hearing, as noticing. Background while doing something else. Listening; a completely different act.

Last week I listened as clients told stories of aging parents, broken relationships, challenging children, frustrating jobs, and just not having enough energy, dammit. I watched the faces and the gestures – the physicality of the emotions attached to those stories. In many cases those emotions were disrupting sleep and triggering overconsumption, among other reactions.

The listening that promts me to write this though, I did in the presence of colleagues, all of us working daily to redefine health and learn and practice the skills needed to navigate life in such a way that our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves can suffer less and joy more.  And of course, through our professions, move this forward.

We were practicing conversation, as speakers and listeners. Our first conversationalist was a self-described brown man, husband (of one of our colleagues), father of three, college-educated professional.  He appeared to me as excited to be with us, but also engaged with the recent events in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Minneapolis.

He spoke first of how he and his wife were improving the quality of their communication by practicing better listening, specifically by staying out of what he called the Me Too. This is a natural response during listening. To relate to our own experience and knowledge to bolster our understanding of what we’re hearing. While natural, this tendency also subtly detracts from our listening. We’re then thinking about ourselves, and perhaps our response, and maybe how we’re going to fix the situation. We’re distracted; dis-tracted, not a singular tract, preoccupied. We’re trying to listen and formulate at the same time. Can’t be done. We are now hearing, but not listening.

He then asked us to listen. To stop the back and forth, the prying apart of sentences for clarity of meaning and exploration. This is something that we typically do as part of this learning exercise. He asked for this to stop; he needed to be heard.

He told us about his conversation the previous evening with his 6 year old son, who expressed fear of Blue (police). For many minutes he spoke, and his emotions were deep and strong. At one point he asked us if we had ever been scared while in the presence of someone we expected to keep us safe. And at this point (the group later learned) we listeners divided. Some went into Me Too, assuming his question was an invitation to explore our history for the sake of relating to him. Others heard it and instead stayed with his story. His question was his own wondering about us. He didn’t want an answer. At that moment he wanted only to be heard.

Later, our second conversation became a similar listening experience on a completely different topic. This guest expressed a deep, almost urgent personal need for a conversation on a specific topic, one that she had previously not identified an audience for. She had one now. And as we listened, her body changed. Her relief was physical and we all saw it.  And felt it.

In both conversations, as we served our speakers by listening, their bodies changed for the better. Unexpressed words and emotions did not need to be numbed later, or twisted and muddied until they exploded as something completely unrelated. The lessons that morning were crystal clear to me: listening is hard work, not being heard can create physical symptoms, and simply being heard makes us feel better.

The skill: listening. The challenge: stay out of Me Too.  To serve the profoundly human need to simply be heard. Not as a problem to be solved or a spirit to be fixed. As an individual worthy of the time and space to be wholly themselves and express that. A need that also serves their body when satisfied. Navigating life. Redefining health.

Who are you listening to? Who is listening to you?