Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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Listening and loneliness

Jem wrote, incisively, about the risk that women might become more like men in terms of loneliness in yesterday’s Sunday Sermon.

Valery North then added to the pot by reminding me that there is a substantial base of academic research about the gendered nature of personality traits albeit with significant cultural variations.

In a past life I used to have to teach, and coach, listening skills. Jem has sometimes referred to my using listening like a martial art, but, in truth,I only do what the earliest women in my life taught me. However, I’ll return to the aetiology of my listening skills in a moment.

When I was teaching listening skills I used to explicitly teach that good listening, and the agreeability that supports it, were gendered skills that women were more likely to possess. I believed it to be true, but it was also a deliberate provocation; spotting which of the guys would be first to say ‘yes, but…’ was a chance to teach in practice what would otherwise be harder to teach in the abstract.

Sometimes the group would recognise the error of the ‘Yes, but…’and we’d be able to move on quickly. If we got to the point where someone argued ‘yes but what if they’re wrong…’ I usually knew enough to know that we’d need to change the timetable and make space for more remedial coaching in week two.

Good sessions were the ones where I got to talk about where my listening skills came from. For reasons that aren’t relevant I spent a lot of my childhood days listening to my mother and her friends, listening to their use of language and non verbal cues to facilitate strong conversations, and wondering at the way elements of their neuroticism may have enabled them to reflect and imagine how others perceived what they were saying.

I also learned how to coach from my mother’s group of friends. If I was quiet,and reading, as I often was, they would praise me, and show an interest in whatever I was reading. When I asked awkward questions they reacted; not always helpfully, and sometimes they howled with laughter at jokes only they understood, but in general they were people who could encourage and help. When my mother was absent from my life for a number of weeks all those women asked after her, and spoke to me as if I, too, mattered.

The contrast between those agreeable, supportive women who told risque jokes and discussed how to get off Valium while smoking like chimneys, and my father with his competitive, masculine friends was sharp. Where the women would tell their stories collaboratively, listening prompting and helping, my dad’s friends would try to top each other’s stories, to assert themselves as the best story teller, the man who knew the most, or had the most strongly held opinion.

I’d watch my dad withdraw in those conversations,moving to one side as if he was unsure.  There again, he was the younger brother in a family of miners, the one who knew that he couldn’t compete with his brothers in the machismo stakes, because they were hewers and he chose to avoid the pit by any means necessary.  If he thought that the other guys at the bar or in the rugby club were bullshitting he never provoked a row -he simply stepped aside and let them get on with it, so that when he did speak, he had conserved his authority and reputation.

I also noticed something about my dad as I matured and we shared more of those public male dominated spaces. He was never short of someone to talk to him. He seemed to have a circuit of people who would come and stand by him, or ask his opinion, and he flourished precisely because they could get their point out.

So I was lucky; I got to see at first hand good listening skills, and to see how they could make a difference. The peril of loneliness is not that we will have no-one to talk to, but that we will not have anyone to listen to. The joy of blogging is not the moment when you press Publish, and a few hundred words inconvenience a few electrons on their way to the interweb. The joy of blogging is when someone responds, or comments, or re-publishes your views.

A little anecdotal postscript here. When my mother was dying, another family member got tetchy about my mother telling them that she had been discussing her district nurse’s worries about her son’s university choices. Angry family member wanted to know why the district nurse was bothering mother with her problems. On the other hand I felt elated. Her body was shipwrecked on the further shores of life, where death was waiting for the final moment, but my mum was true to her last, listening and conversing, and emphatically not alone.

Listening skills and agreeability, along with extraversion, are currently gendered, and culturally transmitted. For men who wish to spare others the risk of loneliness, helping men learn to listen like women is a vital step forward.


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This entry was posted on October 27, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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