the art of listening
Yesterday I spoke at a conference for the Art of Yoga (http://www.theartofyogaproject.org). Art of Yoga is an exceptional group of women whom I met when I was coordinating a mentoring program for the local Juvenile Detention Facility. The project has developed a program and curriculum to bring yoga and art into juvenile detention facilities as a way to connect to and help young women, many of whom are considered unreachable. They do great work. My job at the conference was to explain mandated reporting and the juvenile justice system to the group; yoginnis from all over, some interested in bringing the program to their state and others that were already involved but were deepening their practice or their participation.
I was thrilled to be included. I followed a woman, Mary, who shared her criminal and rehabilitative story. Tim Gatto, the gang task force manager for San Mateo County, accompanied Mary to the forum. Tim sponsors Mary and works with her in forums such as this one and especially with young girls to tell her cautionary tale. Mary’s story was tough to hear; she hit the streets as a young teen after years of physical abuse from her mother finding solace and a home in criminal and gang activity. She is bright, articulate, intelligent skills that work as a public speaker and also seemed to have worked especially well as she rose through the ranks of a local street gang. Mary’s story included detailed and quite sophisticated criminal acts both on the streets and inside prison; precise coordinated actions. Her criminal activity was highly organized, well planned and well executed. Four years and four children later, Mary had a change of heart, accepted intervention and for the last year has been working with Tim to educate and interrupt the criminal careers of girls at risk. Mary said to us at one point, I am used to talking to girls, it’s different to tell this to you all.
Different, because we were trying to help but could not completely understand? Different because we were a room of older predominantly white women and she was a young woman of color, young mom, facing an uphill rehabilitative challenge? Different because we live different lives? Mary said at one point, “I would look at people like you when you were looking at me and think ‘What are you looking at’”? And you could feel her rage, and the sting of the question – Do you even see me…until you can see me I can’t see you…so don’t get in my way.
How do we begin to see and hear each other?
One of the biggest lessons I have learned working in community mental health (www.ymcasf.org) and in my graduate studies (www.ciis.edu) is that the key to understanding is not in ‘getting it’ but in acknowledging that you ‘don’t get it’. This key concept has changed forever my communication, my presence in the consultation room, even my relationship with my dog Walter. I believe from a young age that I was told that they key to human relationships was to find our commonality – in concept; build a bridge between our differences and meet in the middle at the place of mutual understanding. It sounds great, but is doesn’t really work. Here’s the first problem; the assumption of mutuality. If we are so busy looking for what we have in common, we may miss how truly different we are. And if we can’t see those differences we may assume more than is real, which in effect minimizes the very true experience of the person we are hoping to connect with.
So there is a shift; we must move from an “I know” position to an “I have no idea” position. If you approach another person from the point of view of “I have no idea”, you will be amazed at what you learn. The concept is simple, make no assumptions except about yourself, and in that case assume you will project parts of your own experience onto the person you are meeting. For instance; if you have a home where everyone sleeps in their own bedroom, you may assume everyone you are speaking with has their own bedroom – actually this may not be true. Instead you can ask “Where do you live?” “Who else lives there with you?” “Who sleeps were?” “What is that like?” You can apply this line of inquiry to anything and everything.
Think about it…what might it be like to not know? To approach the world and your connections with an open mind and an open heart? To not assume a bridge will be built, but to recognize, that like any good architect, you need to understand what you might build, and where you might begin from. What are your tools? Your budget? Your raw materials?
To listen to connect with an open heart, you cannot race to solve a problem. The greatest gift you can give is to stop, to listen, to inquire. Knowing that you do not know is a true strength. From that place of not knowing, and the comfort with the vulnerability of not having a solution or answer, from starting at a starting place of inquiry…that is where true connection begins.