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Listening may be the best gift

By now you recognize that this year Christmas Day and New Year’s Day fall smack dab in the middle of a week. There’s a weekend sandwiched in between, and it yearns for your attention.

Sure, you could use this weekend to go skiing or hiking or even devote an entire day to returning well intended holiday gifts. Do what you will, but may I suggest you also consider devoting the weekend in between and the days that follow to perfect your listening skills.

I was prompted to consider the importance of this when our 7-year-old grandson passionately reported to me what frustrated him most in life was “when I start to talk, nobody seems to listen they look away.”

Now, granted, this boy talks a lot, but he has a lot to say, and he’s only going to be 7 for another year. I, for one, want to hear all about it.

During the holidays, families spend time with one another in ways that never occur throughout the rest of the year. Entire days filled with talking and reminiscing. Stories are told, and with the balm of the years, previously unknown facts surface. Family discussions during holiday get-togethers have helped me come to know that our cat definitely ate the pet gerbils (they were not “donated” as one teen suggested at the time), and the huge, never-explained gouge in a bedroom wall really was an accident, but a playful moment, not a mean-spirited one.

In every family, we need full-of-listening-and-laughter exchanges. We need more moments where family history is revisited, perhaps even rethought, and communication between family members is rich, full and spirited. And at these times, the best family discussions include the oldest-old, for they are often the ones who have the most poignant revelations.

Through listening, I learned from my 90-year-old mother that she had a brief flirtation on a train when she was young, and the moment stayed in her heart forever and comforted her on her deathbed.

I listened well one special afternoon, and I learned that my father-in-law’s pride in his ability to quit smoking rivaled any other accomplishment in his life.

Those listening moments were unparalleled in their fragile specialness for me. I want more of those moments. “Active” listening means focusing on the person who’s speaking, embracing them with all your attention, listening with your eyes and your ears. Dean Rusk, former U.S. statesman, was reportedly a very good listener who felt, “One of the best ways to persuade other people is with your ears.”

Dr. Carl Rogers, the well regarded psychoanalyst, and some might say the ultimate listening expert, believed effective listening involved reflecting back what is said and mirroring feelings. Some people say good listening hinges on what you choose not to say.

I once observed a small child sitting on the lap of his wheelchair-using grandmother. He was talking to her about his day and speaking directly into her hearing-aided ear. She was intently absorbing his every word. When she finally responded, affirming his words and asking him questions, he gently stroked her cheek. It was a gift exchange.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator Reach her at sharon@rbtrv.org.