…to a friend who is listening to me but not really hearing me.
Listening vs. Hearing in Friend-Talk
People say a lot of things, especially to those with whom they are the closest. Most of it is probably innocuous or inconsequential; however, there are moments when it is particularly crucial for the other person to not only listen to what their friend is saying but to also be hearing them. By hearing, I mean critically processing the information someone is sharing with you and thinking just as critically about what your role is within all of that data.
One of the major problems I’ve noticed in close friendships is that one or both participants confuse listening to someone with actually hearing them.
Listening is, on the whole, quite a passive act. You can listen to virtually anything without really absorbing the input. Just go to your local college lecture room and spot the listeners: they’re present; they make eye contact; hell, some of them might even be raising their hand to ask a question. But ask them a few hours later what the professor or their peers were talking about, and chances are they won’t be able to tell you much.
Put something on the radio while you’re driving. Take a long drive. When you eventually exit the car can you: remember every song that came on? Recall all of the commercials in between songs and what they were advertising? Discuss the talking segments between radio hosts in great depth? Probably not.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. You were listening, not hearing.
Now, take that same college classroom and look for the student who is actively taking notes, asking both the professor and her peers questions, referring back to her previous notes and/or related classroom texts. Perhaps she leaves the classroom talking to the professor or another student about the lecture. Talk to her in a few hours; I’ll bet she’ll have more in-depth commentary on what she listened to and heard.
Okay, so what’s your point?
Ittakes a great deal of trust within a friendship to be completely, wholly truthful, especially when you have to confront one another during times of conflict. When you can establish this level of intimacy with someone, romantic or friendly, it is something to be celebrated. Everyone needs at least one good friend like this.
I am grateful to say that I have a handful of friends who fit this role for me and I for them. We are open, honest even when it hurts and supportive. We also limit our judgement.
However, I do have one friend who, no matter how many times we argue about or disagree on specific aspects of our relationship, never seems able to consistently make adjustments to finally end the conflict. Now, don’t get me wrong, this give and take works both ways; there were many conflicts that stemmed from my own behaviors which I had to check at the door if I wanted to maintain her friendship. And I did. So I changed what I could without compromising my core beliefs and values.
She and I fight every few months. Not epically. It’s a calmed, more mature form of fighting, where we clearly are disagreeing on the same thing, and I’m trying to express how I feel about it, and she doesn’t seem able to properly hear me. She’s only listening.
So without further introduction….here goes:
Dear Friend Who’s Listening But Not Hearing,
I’m not sure how else to express my concerns to you. I want us to remain friends, but it seems that friendship with you requires that I say very little and stay out of your way. It also requires that I stop bringing things up that you don’t want to talk through. Because you’re trying, however inconsistently.
Sometimes a suggestion I make is just simply that: a suggestion. There’s no need for discussion or debate. There’s no need to point out what I’m doing wrong. I simply want you to hear what I’m saying and take the time to absorb it. If I’m bringing it up, it’s because it is impacting our friendship significantly.
Now, I don’t want you to change who you are; but is it wrong to ask if you can adjust the things you do?
We’ve been friends for so long, it seems silly that we can’t work past this. But it starts with hearing me because I’m trying my darndest to hear you. And let’s be clear: I’m not telling you I’m mad at you; I’m not telling you that you’re wrong; I’m not even telling you that you have to do everything my way.
What I am telling you is that there are certain things you do that create extra “looking-after” actions by me. In the bluntest possible terms: I feel like I’m pulling the weight in our friendship. I’m taking the initiative most of the time to connect; I’m helping you work out your stuff at the expense of my own; I’m picking up a lot of the slack. And it feels like you’re…coasting.
Now, I love you, and it’s very unlikely that I’ll abandon our friendship. But I am getting tired, and I’d really appreciate some help, please.
And it would first start with you hearing me. Take in what I’m saying with a critical ear; I imagine that if you are able to do that well, the next time we argue about this, you won’t have a quick come back. You won’t need to point out what I’m doing wrong. You won’t need to defend yourself with the comeback, “I’m trying.” Rather, you might instead listen, process, analyze and adjust.
And in turn, I’ll continue doing the same for you.
An Enduring Friend