Thursday, February 28, 2019


I am the coordinator for a parenting roundtable at my son's school, and another parent recommended this book for our selection this semester. Overall, I found it an insightful and practical read that represents listening as an intentional activity (not just maintaining silence while the other person speaks) that conveys something in return to the speaker. The book outlines the fears and anxieties that keep us from being the listeners we mean to be and suggests ways to reframe our thoughts and how to implement better strategies in our daily lives (for example, effective vs. ineffective questions with your teen, the value of restraint, the importance of remembering that just because we listen to someone else's POV doesn't mean that we are locked into agreeing with it, or that we won't get our turn to talk).

"It isn't that we're bad listeners; it's our hidden emotional agendas that crowd out understanding and concern. When we clear away automatic emotional reactions--criticism, fear, hurt--we get to compassion, curiosity, and tenderness."

"One reason people doubt that we understand how they feel is that we fail to let them know we heard them. Silence is ambiguous. ... The point isn't to convey that you understand but to convey that you're trying to."

The author provides plenty of anecdotes from his practice and his own family life for illustration, and often provides bits of humor, which acknowledges that we're all trying and flawed. I've already implemented one change. When my daughter called to tell me about a situation she's dealing with at college, I know not to jump in and offer a quick fix; but this time, instead of trying to sense what she wanted from me, I asked outright and openly: "Are you sharing this to let me know what's going on (which I appreciate) or would you like a suggestion?"

Some of the book retraces principles we find in the more "pop" psychology books, about inquiring first rather than jumping to making judgments, but even that is pretty well theorized without getting laden with PhD jargon.

My one gripe with this book, and it has to do with the assumptions underpinning its project, is that Nichols begins: "Nothing hurts more than the sense that the people we care about aren't really listening. We never outgrow the need to have our feelings known." That is absolutely true, so far as it goes. But I think he doesn't quite acknowledge that we also need to have other people's stories told to us. We grow with those, and they are a gift that I (at least) crave. Otherwise, why would we read books, for example? This question is sort of outside the realm of the book; I just felt he might have acknowledged that need. I do think that in this hurried world, listening is undervalued and underachieved; there are a lot of people who don't get enough listening, who don't have enough of that sense that they matter. So this book addresses a prevalent and painful issue.

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