Listening

One day last week I wrote this poem –

Breakfast Thoughts

As you eat your eggs and bacon,
the cup of coffee steaming;
As you nibble on the toast,
smeared thick with orange marmalade;

As you contemplate the night before,
and the days, months, years behind you,
you are aware
of how badly you share

the things that matter the most.
Not from lack of trying.
No, not that.

Your words have filled the air,
filled page after page,
hour after hour, late into the night,
disappearing like fog in the morning,
under the bright sun of other’s imaginings and pasts.

You sip your coffee, strong,
slightly bitter, slightly sweet,
and wonder, as you have wondered so often,
What if?

What if those you loved felt that love?
What if they knew
the depth, the rawness, the fear……
the passion

those three words meant?
What if they knew the trueness, how
even with the flaws and mistakes,
the misstarts and madness,

you are crazy true,
unwavering, that your desire
despite the grey hair and rheumy eyes
still burns?

You sigh.
No one would believe.
No one ever has.
You are too quiet perhaps,

your words lack the force.
You do not shout.
You simply say.
and that, it seems

is never enough,

The big surprise….

In terms of how many people dropped me notes, liked the thing, asked to make copies, or just told me, this is likely the most impactful poem I ever wrote. And I had no idea while I was writing that  I was writing something that would touch people that much. . I was just trying to do what I often try to do when I write poems – get something out, or sort through something in my head.

The response and my total surprise at it, got me thinking. One of the things I have had the hardest time learning in life is that communication has at least, and probably as more to do with the mind of the listener than what we actually say.

That is a tough reality for someone like me, a wordsmith by nature, education and profession. I pride myself on being pretty good at crafting words to send a message.

The writing I do for clients is informational. I write articles, case studies, web sites, brochures, that kind of thing. People are reading what I write to learn something and it is my job to make it as clear and accurate, and at times, persuasive, as possible. That is a skill and I have had a lot of years and experience to help me hone that skill. People pay me to do it.

I’ve been trained for other kinds of communications too. I have an English degree with a minors in communications. I have a Masters in English Writing. When I went to seminary, I was schooled in preaching. I could not tell you the number of workshops and other programs I have attended learning to write this or that better.

But life has taught me the most important lesson about writing, or speaking, or sharing. And that lesson is that the moments the words leave our mouths, pens or keyboards, they are no longer ours. The people who listen or read our words will begin changing what we say the moment they read or hear them. And I will be constantly surprised at what they get from them.

Constantly surprised. It’s beyond the “selective hearing” that we often joke about concerning our spouses and children. No, our listeners and readers are, from the moment our words reach them, recreating what we write.

That can be disturbing to us who are talking or writing. After all, we want to share something important enough to talk about, to write about. We want to be understood. And to think it will become something very different the moment we put it out there? No matter the skill we apply to it? That’s frustrating!

But it’s not a bad thing.

I used to think it was a bad thing. But I’ve changed my view. I’ve learned that my job as a writer is not just to make what is in my head clear but to listen to those I am talking to, and adapt to them. And then after I am done writing, to listen again. It’s a constant process, and it’s relational, or it CAN be relational.

So, if I want to be understood, I have to think more about the listener, or the reader, than what I am saying. Because my words and thoughts mean much less than how the other person is feeling or thinking. That is not an easy lesson. But it’s important when I want to be understood. It’s almost like a lesson in translating, than in simply writing or saying what I need to say.
I have to realize that sometimes, no matter what, the things I am saying will be so changed in my readers/listener;s mind, that I can’t do a damn thing about it. And I just have to accept that. Not beat myself up for what I can’t seem to get across. That the listener has a responsibility too, to try and understand me.

That’s more work than most of us, tellers or listeners, want to deal with. So we settle for half communicating, half hearing, constant frustration at the constant disconnects, instead of making the effort.

But there are rewards. Paying more attention makes every communication, living communication, not just something to read or write, but a relationship between the reader and writer. And relationships give life meaning, richness and depth.

And isn’t that what we hope for when we open our mouths, when we write? More than words, but relationship?

Be well. Travel wisely.

Tom

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