Learning to Listen
Once everyone had agreed to participate, the stage was set for some training in the core elements of Open Hearted Listening–speaking, mirroring and validating.
Cecile: Our basic strategy was to present the material, demonstrate it, and then have each person practice both the listening and the speaking. Part of our job as facilitators was to address the girls’ need to be heard, and also Adam’s concern that he wouldn’t just get dumped on.
In order to do that, we first had to train Adam in what his role would be, and to feel confident that he would be able to validate the girls’ feelings. If we had come to the conclusion, after the training, that he hadn’t really been able to validate, we would have either postponed his session with the girls, or canceled it. We couldn’t take these girls to a vulnerable place and not have him be able to do the process correctly. That was our first benchmark of safety.
To safeguard Adam, on the other hand, we had to lead Lauren and Myra to an understanding of what Open Hearted Listening is and is not. There was a very delicate balancing act here–because of the issues they were bringing, because of their age, because of how long their feelings had been blocked. We had to help them access the intensity of their feelings, but also help them understand that this was not a dumping ground.
Daniel: One of our major goals was to help everyone realize that Open Hearted Listening is a practice within a larger framework of attitudes which help make it work–attitudes such as being willing to play our edges, to stretch into places that are uncomfortable, and to choose to be loving and caring, again and again.
Cecile: Another touchstone is that it’s not about being rational or being right. Healing happens when there’s an emotional connection, when the emotional body is given a place to be.
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Myra: The listening part of the training was hard. My dad and I did it together. I wanted to yell back at him when he said something, because I knew that if I didn’t yell back right then that I’d forget what he said. Then I realized how hard it would be for Adam to sit there and listen.
Lauren: I found the training sessions quite boring, actually. (Laughs) Maybe next time they could be geared more toward younger people.
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Cecile: It was difficult to bring this process to people who are just exiting the childhood consciousness. It’s hard to get to a place of empathy for another person. It was a big stretch for the girls to take this on.
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Adam: The training helped me realize the importance of experiencing my own power. There’s a fear that if we know our power we will abuse it. I believe the reverse is true–that it is the feeling of powerlessness which leads to the abuse of power.
I discovered that power is based in the heart. It very much matters to people how I feel about them. It very much matters to me how I feel about them. The recognition that it matters is a discovery of my power.
Some of the training focused on learning to express anger, but that hasn’t been my problem. My problem has been using anger as a mask, to help protect me from feeling vulnerable. When something made me feel uncomfortable, I would immediately become angry, instead of looking at why I was feeling uncomfortable. So instead of feeling any of the vulnerable emotions, like sadness or fear or grief, or even being aware of them, I would feel angry instead. Open Hearted Listening helped me move toward the roots of my feelings.
Robert: How were you feeling as the session with the girls drew near?
Adam: At first I was impatient. I had a high level of anxiety, not knowing what the outcome would be. Then I caught myself being self-absorbed again. I realized that my own anxiety must be far less than what the girls were feeling. They were the ones who deserved compassion and support. How could they find the courage to confront the powerful adult who had abused them?
Robert: It’s striking, isn’t it, how even getting ready for Open Hearted Listening stirred up the same dynamic that caused the abuse in the first place–myopic self-absorption.
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Joyce: In the weeks before the session with Adam, I could feel the girls’ sense of anticipation rising, of finally being able to get it out. My confidence kept rising, too. I thought, “It looks like they can handle this. With each other’s help, maybe they can get it out.”