Raising the Dialogue, Part 2: Listening for the Big Lessons

Last week, I wrote about listening past others’ challenging words as though it’s easy, a switch to flip. “Ah, yes, now I hear the humanness beneath the reactivity. Jolly good!”

Ah, but no. Not in real life.

In real life, we have someone else whose reactive shouts for attention get in the way of that deep, compassionate listening: Ourselves.

Years ago, in the midst of a particularly challenging interpersonal conflict – so triggering and painful that I wanted to cut a member of my innermost circle out of my life altogether – I reached out to one of my unofficial teachers, an incredibly wise woman whose learning has led to a radiance that shines from her.

Looking back, I can see that I wasn’t really hoping from guidance from her at that time; I was looking for permission to judge and blame and act out. I wanted her to write back, “Sure, a lot of behaviors should trigger compassion in us but this, this is too far. This absolutely deserves ire and wrath, SB.”

Instead, she responded with an email that said things like:

How did you feel about the things she said and did and what is the root of your own emotions? This sounds like such an obvious thing, but for me it’s at the heart of it all. If I can understand that my anger, sadness, irritation, etc. is about ME and something I want/need but am not getting, then it’s easier for me to communicate those things to someone else without blame.


So, spend some time what that part of yourself that wants to yell at [her]; spend some time with that part of yourself that wants to write her off. What are those parts trying to say to you?


Try not to take any action at all until you know what it’s all about for you.

Friends, this was not obvious to me. None of what she wrote. Not obvious, not easy, not even doable for a long time. Still, her guidance did slow me down and keep me from severing ties with my loved one. Admittedly, it was probably a year and a half before we had another comfortable conversation but, long as it took, that conversation did come.

With those we love the most, those who are most consequential to our lives, the challenge of being curious about what we’re reacting to is all the more challenging – our beliefs about who they are and what they mean with every syllable and eyebrow waggle tends to be pretty well solidified. This also makes our introspective curiosity all the more important. Had I enacted my most reactive desires in this conflict, I would have created a gaping hole in my life while also creating heartbreak and challenge for the sizeable handful of people looped into our web of interconnection.

What about those people who are less consequential in our lives? What about the people who, by the strictest definitions of “friends” and “acquaintances” would fall solidly into the latter category?

What about people we don’t know personally, who we see in the news or our social media channels?

The challenge of turning toward our reactions with these folks comes from how easily they can be excised from our lives. Delete the email, hide the feed, put down the paper. It comes from how easily we can mash them into two-dimensional caricatures of humans. They are clearly stupid/selfish/racist/sexist/evil. Period.

Last week, I was offered another opportunity to practice these skills – truthfully, they come almost daily when we pay attention to our feelings of frustration and judgment. Last week, though, I was included in a group email filled with panic, anger, and fear from someone who isn’t a major player in my life, whose absence would cause only the slightest blip in my web of interconnection.

I read it. I reacted. I deleted the email. And then I remembered this lesson, and that the email was an opportunity to practice listening to myself, and to practice listening more deeply to him.

I moved the email back into my inbox. While I brushed my teeth and daydreamed while I cooked, I composed responses, acknowledging his discomfort and the parts of his personal story that I understood could compound his fear and frustration.

I noticed time and again my desire to eventually, with great cleverness of language, move toward shutting him down. Here’s why your thoughts are lame and/or Here’s why you were wrong to send me this email and/or Take your fear mongering elsewhere, bub.

Each time I noticed I’ve arrived at a judgment or desire to change him instead of myself is another opportunity to bring curiosity. Okay, so what is being triggered in me? Why do I need for him to think the way I think? What am I actually trying to achieve here?

Truthfully, I still haven’t responded because I haven’t gotten to a place of accepting where he is or understanding where I am. I’m not obsessing or spending tons of time on this – life does goes on with its demands and responsibilities – but I am allowing myself to stroll over the grounds of my reactivity when I have a moment, practicing curiosity and digging a little deeper.

To be clear and reiterate an important bit from last week: Regardless of the particulars of any given circumstance, this curiosity-fueled exploration isn’t about compromising our ethics or values. The exploration I’m in the midst of will not end in our agreement on the topic of his email. Exploring my reactivity as it pertains to article after article in the newspaper will not end in me agreeing with many of the behaviors I see reported there.

Much like forgiveness, though, this isn’t really about the other person or people. This is about my quest to move continually toward bigger and badder versions of myself, and what I believe that does in our web of interconnection. If I respond to his reactivity with my reactivity, we perpetuate the cycle of reactivity. If I respond to his reactivity with thoughtfulness and compassion, I’m living more fully into my own values and I’m opening the possibility of a deeper communication between us.

To me, that’s worth every effort it takes.

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