Intentional Space: simple strategies blog

January 28, 2021

My name is Maureen McMahon, your PSD Communications Specialist. After 15 years of working at home as an editor, writer, publicist, and parent, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of intentional space. This series is meant to share simple strategies honed from the holistic living emphasis of my journalism, and are suggestions to help you navigate working from home and for heightening your awareness. 

Home these days for all of us is filled with competing needs, so every suggestion is of course hypothetical. All ideas are mine, stemming from my knowledge of holistic living and daily practices, and not the PSD’s. May you find a new way of working you carry with you.

Special thanks to the experts who contributed to this: Lorraine Coburn, MSW, Dr. Robert Hopkins, and Dr. David Kyle Bond.

Thanks, Maureen

Intentional Space: better listening

In these times of high stress and together while apart communication, a strategy for intentional space can be to offer to the people you live with, as well as your close family and friends, the gift of better listening. 

Pleasant exchanges are useful if we want to make it easy for people to be around us—especially if we are afraid of requiring something from others. But people need to be needed. And requiring something of them is a gift. 

So two gifts: better listening and providing a purpose. 

When was the last time you asked someone, “What do you make of that?” Or the person with you said, “May I reflect what you just said back to you?” In America, these exchanges are dutifully relegated to support groups and therapy. 

But there is so much untold grief right now. We need to make intentional space for conversations that go beyond catching up. 

Most of us are in a holding pattern with how we communicate. We like conversations for taking care of business. We text each other updates, phrase-length reports of how we are doing, or miscellaneous images without anticipating much of a response—or requiring one. Facebook added a feature so we can “care” instead of just “like,” and it turns out it’s a useful shorthand, but we deserve better.

The scope of what is wrong is so large and our isolation so strange that subjective reports on how we are doing are the only proclamations that feel real. Still, we need to give each other permission to explore. 

I spoke to several psychologists, namely Lorraine Coburn, MSW, Dr. Robert Hopkins, and Dr. David Kyle Bond, about better listening. They agree most people reserve conversations that explore honest feelings for trusted friends. Having a deeper, meaningful conversation is a question of establishing safety.

It takes time to establish rapport. As trusted confidants know—once safety is held for years, there is a feeling of uplift and momentum when another conversation begins. They return to each other because they know they will feel heard, witnessed, and validated. 

But if that’s not your experience, what is a safe pairing? In my interviews with these psychologists, we thought through some common examples. War veterans will only go there with other war veterans. The bereaved have implicit permission to share their grief because they are talking to others who also recently lost someone. These pairings happen because we avoid going deep with people we don’t know as well, since it can feel like a minefield, making it worse. These pairings allow sharing without reservation. But here we are: We are all in this war, grieving at the same time. Is there permission? How do we have conversations that build trust?

Navigating conversations during the pandemic is uncomfortable. We often conserve, finding it helpful or protective to curb the discussion and avoid the “unpleasant.” However, committing to wider, more responsive conversations can be the antidote to the isolation we are with and feelings of fear. Giving others a time of better listening allows an opening for them to process what is coming to the surface and for compassion to build. 

Can we help each other feel better and allow the unpleasant into a worthwhile exchange? The ideal is not to live inside a Victorian novel, explorations of impressions just tumbling out. But there is a type of listening that gives people permission to explore, Dr. Bond explained, and it is not in service to narcissism, but because in the exchange we share how we are genuinely curious about what has been surfacing. 

Through responsive listening, conversations become mutually beneficial. People connect through shared experiences. “I hear you saying this…and I also have….” These conversations build camaraderie.

Through exploratory listening, we ask open questions and use our responses to ask more questions and affirm the speaker. The listener offers reactions without interruption or corrections. 

Having an exploratory conversation be two-sided is a skill. Lorraine Coburn noted that some people are talkative and go for this naturally, but their style leaves the other speaker with unmet needs, which is a frustrating long-term dynamic. In the example of the confidants, they both feel heard and validated and are willing to return.

When you have a conversation with someone you know well, figure out if it can be a time for responsive or exploratory listening, in an exchange that can help the other speaker feel less stress.

Practical Approaches

It is a dark passage. Many of us live alone, speak to very few people, and often feel forgotten. Many people just lost someone unexpectedly. Many are of the generation that is leaving. There is a Camus sense in which the world outside that embraced a person’s public rituals is locked down. How we moved through the world has temporarily ceased—driving, shopping, visiting, mapping our lives. 

People would rather someone reached out. What does this mean in practice? Think of the people you usually reach out to—peer to peer, youth to elder, adult to elder. Where are the people you call, text, or videochat? How many people are they with? 

How can you approach better listening with someone living alone? Lorraine Coburn said an easy way into the conversation can be, “This has been really tough on me. How has this been for you?” It’s an open-ended question approach that may or may not get a response, usually depending on how familiar you are with the speaker. Speaking about the quotidian, the way a nursing home worker chats with someone while they help them, opens up a more meaningful discussion, she said.

“What’s new?” is always appropriate. It allows the other person a wide range of responses, and they can choose whether or not to bring up painful things. “What is happening in your world?” could lean itself toward more specific responses, or “How has COVID affected your plans?” All are appropriate, she said, but whether people will answer with honest feelings is another matter.

Connecting across generations

Many of us have children and teens in our lives who need better listening. They might also only want to explain something to you about TikTok, or talk about themselves. Having a pandemic conversation with them is an offering. Dr. Bond pointed out we don’t expect children and teens to process our grief. If you initiate a conversation, it’s just a chance for them to name what matters to them. 

Why put the effort in? Right now, I have witnessed that middle and high schoolers are untethered, gleaning hyper-representation to synthesize norms. Many of them are too shy to reach out to peers while remote learning. A deeper, more meaningful conversation with a child or a teen can respond to what they want to explore, Dr. Bond said, but the adult sets the tone. They look to adults to steer. Adults can guide a conversation to what a child or teen needs reassurance around, or to what might affirm their sense of belonging. For example, reminding them of other historical times of great challenge that their family faced and the relatives who persevered might help relieve stress.

He said often just acknowledging that there may have been difficult things communicates that these are knowable experiences, and we can open the door to them. With kids we can open the door, but not push. Identifying the associations—what is knowable—becomes the antidote to that feeling. 

Bridging the divide with young adults

Many of us in the PSD work closely with young adults. They have different needs, and many are suddenly back in the nest. Young adults faced with forging their career, important relationships, and mature worldview are overloaded with heavy questions of belonging. Every day, on their phone, reckoning events unfold. Worrying about their timetable is exhausting. 

Would you pick up the phone to ask how they are doing? Is there a relationship or gestalt that inspires or reviles them in the wake of recent upheaval? Speaking to someone across the generations can give perspective and bolster resilience and fortitude. It can also bridge the divide that the legacies of generations have wrought.

Sometimes talking to younger people gives pause, or at its worst silence. The power of these legacies is the drama we’ve written the first acts for that young people must resolve. But we can talk about what mattered. We can make this better, and kinder, when we commit again to knowing each other. 

Better listening means offering your presence: nonjudgmental, compassionate, allowing, and present to whatever comes up. Your mind will want to compare, contrast, and measure. Patiently let that go and practice better listening. You might share your wisdom, especially with someone younger, but there’s always another idea, always an appropriate response: I understand.

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