I have a smart mouth. At least that’s what my mother always told me. I think she’s right. She’s good at telling the truth. But I’ve also worked very hard not to use that smart mouth unless I have to, unless I’m hungry, or unless I’m impatient with the listener.
I noticed two things the other day. First, it’s hard to give feedback when the feedback stings. Second, it’s hard to soften words that are inherently sharp.
I was giving feedback the other day to someone, and I didn’t use my smart mouth. I used the best approach I could. I wanted good for this person, a student of mine. And it was still hard to tell the truth. I’ve been teaching graduate students for eight years and giving critical feedback is still a task.
So the next time you hear hard feedback, take a breath as you take in the words. It may be as hard to say as it is to hear.
This is an instruction I hear a few times a week in my fitness routine. It’s a group class, and our instructors–especially one of them–when they lead the warm up say in one way or another, “Relax what you’re not using.”
I breathe as if for the first time when I hear it. I feel spoken to. I feel embarrassed because they are always talking to me even in a room of 30 people.
They’ve told me for a while that my trouble is in relaxing. Release your shoulders. A tight mouth does nothing for your power. A hard stare is not helping. These are things I need to keep hearing.
Focus on what I’m using. Conserve the rest for when their time comes. Breathe.
When I heard your explanation of your new position, it made me leap inside my heart. I can see you being a chaplain over there, seeing your patients, pushing the borders of your pastoral identity. I could see you praying and preaching and leading.
Your eyes sparkled as you spoke. I noticed it even though I kept my listening face. I guarded the treasure of your brightened countenance. I thought of the other residents and students in our CPE program. I thought of my chaplain colleagues and the pastors I know who are open to call. I saw them and the fulfillment of their hopes in your sparkling eyes.
You weren’t entirely happy with everything–and who’d expect that given your description of the social climate of the place–but you possessed a vision of what could be. That’s what came through your speech, through your eyes.
The vision of your next days, the long moments with others where you’d have an impact, where you’d do some more good in the world. Good for you. Good for them. Good for us.
If you’d like to enter my giveaway, please leave a book title in the comments from my interview with Tayari Jones. You can do so til midnight today. It looks like Cathy has a strong chance of winning so far! I know you’ve read the interview, people.
Now, for today’s post. Parker Palmer writes the passage below in A Hidden Wholeness, words that echo how I feel when I’m trying to listen well, to withhold unnecessary words when I sit with someone I care about.
Two things it may be helpful to know before you read the quote. One is that he uses the phrase “inner teacher” to talk about the core of humanity, the soul, or the true person, what in the general Christian tradition may also be called either the image of God or the Spirit of God. Second, when he says “circle of trust,” he’s describing a group of people who come together to pay attention to no other agenda except to provide a safe space for the soul. The book’s about these two things, so while that one-sentence is only so helpful, you can gather his gist with my summary (from pgs. 117-18):
When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you do not want to be fixed or saved: you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored. If your problem is soul-deep, your soul alone knows what you need to do about it, and my presumptuous advice will only drive your soul back into the woods. So the best advice I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.
But holding you that way takes time, energy, and patience. As the minutes tick by, with no outward sign that anything is happening for you, I start feeling anxious, useless, and foolish, and I start thinking about all the other things I have to do. Instead of keeping the space between us open for you to hear your soul, I fill it up with advice, not so much to meet your needs as to assuage my anxiety and get on with my life. Then I can disengage from you, a person with a troublesome problem, while saying to myself, “I tried to help.” I walk away feeling virtuous. You are left feeling unseen and unheard.
How do we change these deeply embedded habits of fixing, saving, advising, and setting each other straight? How do we learn to be present to each other by speaking our own truth; listening to the truth of others; asking each other honest, open questions; and offering the gifts of laughter and silence? These ways of being together are so important in a circle of trust that each of them has its own chapter in this book…
Our purpose is not to teach anyone anything but to give the inner teacher a chance to teach us.