Notes on “Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding” by William R. Miller.

I love this book. I came upon it thanks to a recommendation from a dear friend, someone who is so similar to me in growth trajectory that we joke (but not really) about how they just give me all the advice they give themselves and it is always exactly the thing I need to hear. So when they suggested this book to me, part of me knew I needed to read it. But another part of me was wounded at the suggestion that I wasn’t a good listener already! Thankfully, the book is written for exactly those of us that think this.

The week that I decided to read this book was the week I finally—finally—took an honest-to-goodness break from work, possibly for the first time ever. I don’t mean just that I didn’t work. I mean that I stopped working and also, miraculously, stopped thinking about the work I wasn’t doing. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but it was necessary. It was a moment of throwing my hands up, because every aspect of plodding along and working, working, working felt unmanageable. Every bit of doing work had been bleeding joy for months, years, and what remained was exhaustion. Stopping felt like the only thing I could do. (Thank a strong union for hard-won paid time off. Stand in solidarity with those of us who don’t yet have that.)

Because work has long been my coping mechanism for dealing with stress, dysfunction, and more, not working has felt like an acknowledgement of all the ways in which I’m healthier now—I no longer need to work to feel okay. But the question remained—what do you do with a coping mechanism that grew in dysfunction but that has been rewarded by the world you live in, those rewards in turn proving necessary (but definitely not sufficient; the rest is privilege) for building the safety and security in which I could heal? When I stopped working, I did not know what the answer would be. How am I going to work when I run out of time off?

Into this void of possibility came “Listening Well.” I found myself well-poised to make the changes the author was suggesting. (Not perfectly! That’s the work of a lifetime. But with consciousness and intention). Moreover, I agreed with the author that learning to listen well is more than just a set of skills worth developing. It changes how I exist in the world. And crucially, it gives the overworked part of my mind a foundation from which to engage with the world again, but healthily this time. It gives my logic part something to do, a calm and stable fixed point to return to as it works to unlearn longstanding patterns of obsession, rumination, and single-mindedness.

Because at the heart of listening well, according to Miller, is both noticing and connecting. It is meditative and communal. It’s about taking risks in engaging with another, where being wrong is beside the point. It is all about vulnerability without self-centeredness. These are all the directions in which I want to grow, as a person.

And so I have no doubt that these practices are going to shift how I am in my relationships (slowly! imperfectly!). I’m loving all the chances I get to practice them, in person within my social-distancing bubble, on the phone, by text. I’ve realized, of course, that I don’t always want to listen well—sometimes, I want to talk about me, lean into weird banter, distract from the conversation because I noticed or remembered something unrelated, or not engage at all. Nevertheless, this book has crystallized something very powerful for me.

And what I’m most excited about is what this practice of listening well could do for my work as a behavioral ecologist and soon-to-be-professor. Many aspects of being an academic— writing, editing, teaching, and mentorship, most obviously—are in no small part about listening well and creating from a place of responsive empathy. But so is the work of science itself—I want to observe the world, read papers, and understand ideas from this same place of generosity and curiosity that “Listening Well” centers. Science is the work of noticing, distilling, and extending ideas a little further, which is exactly the work of listening well. I want the science I do to make the room for both nature and my community of scientists to prolong the conversation.

With this approach as my bedrock, I’m starting to feel excited about getting back to work. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Listening Well

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