A gem about listening from Harriet Lerner: This is conversation #1; there will be other times to talk

Man on a Ladder, 1992. Quint Buchholz, painter.

Vivian asks, “Grandma, do you want to see a bee’s leg?” Lickity split I am sitting next to her. “Look at the hair on its legs,” and she shows me.

I admit to an inner tug to give Vivian a lecture on the vital role bees provide in food ending up on my plate when I see their setae. Instead, I listen as Vivian describes what she sees.

Vivan using her Smart Lab microscope

Later I think more about that urge to talk instead of listening. 

I recall something in one of Harriet Lerner’s books about listening. (It’s from a chapter she calls L.D.D., which stands for Listening Deficit Disorder). It goes like this: 

“When in a conversation, don’t just do something, stand there!” 

She says that many conversations start with a person saying, “I’m feeling X” and the other person immediately says, “Have you considered doing Y or Z?” Her suggestion is about letting a conversation unfold without a solution.

In other words, when someone is talking, my job is to listen.

In the past, and with kids especially—well, okay, with everyone—my mode of relating was to listen or watch long enough to move in quickly to teach, tell, lecture, or offer a solution. 

Now, I tell myself Lerner’s little jewel, “This is conversation number one. I tell myself that I'm not going to offer any educational tidbit until conversation number two—maybe not until conversation 3 or 4, which I can initiate later.

This awareness gives me the freedom to practice being a caring listener and a skilled questioner. When I do this, Vivian’s curiosity grows. She shares what she notices and knows. If I remain quiet enough, I might discover that she is already attuned to the plight of pollinators.

I’m so glad I kept quiet. I learned that she’s a budding scientist! She enthusiastically told me she was going to be a doctor. I believe her. The gift we give others is just being there, attentive and curious. I could feel a connection. 

The best part was seeing that quieting allowed me to see from Vivian's view. Making space and pausing brought openness. I learned more about Viv's interests and reasons to study medicine.

(This was first posted 4/19/13). Today Vivian is a nursing student.