Just sitting at the table with your head cocked adorably to one side isn't enough. The art of being attentive is a journey to the seat of oneself.
A woman I was in love with would tell me stories quickly, without stopping. In the first few months of our relationship we often went to dinner at the same French restaurant in the West Village, where it was quiet and the waiters left us alone. One night I was talking about my parents and how they'd managed to hide the acrimonious parts of their divorce. She listened for a long time and then she told me a story about her father, about how furious he'd been after her mother left him for another man. She was 9, and she and her little brother had been left to live with their father in rural Connecticut. Her father forced her to go duck hunting with him at dawn on Sunday mornings. While they hunted, he told her long, graphic stories about what an evil person her mother was.
I believed that I was listening. I may have grimaced, because the experience sounded bad, and I know I wondered about how what had happened to her so long ago might affect our own future. But I wasn't doing anything more than drinking wine and picking at the scallops I'd gotten as an appetizer. She was speaking rapidly, eating salad while she talked. I found myself saying, Slow down, finish what you're eating, what's the matter? I can't listen if you talk in such a rush. She went quiet then. I felt bad, and I was aware that somehow I'd appeared hostile. Later that night we rode the subway, headed back to my apartment in Brooklyn.
"Why were you in such a rush before, when you were telling that story?" I asked.
She looked down, as if she was weighing what she needed to say. "It's because I can't help thinking that if I don't get the story out fast, you'll lose interest—or leave."
What she said felt like a punch, because I saw how she'd feel that way. I'd listened badly, and presumed, incorrectly, that simply by being present I was doing a good enough job of hearing her, of taking in what she was saying. I knew then that though I was a better listener than I'd been in the past, I still had a lot of work to do. I don't believe that being a good listener comes naturally—I think it's a skill, and I look forward to getting better at it.
My listening low point came years ago, when I was in my early twenties. It was a Saturday, 11 A.M. on a beautiful fall day in Manhattan, and I was walking along Fifth Avenue with my girlfriend, toward the Metropolitan Museum. Neither of us lived in New York then, though we wanted to, and the enchanting quality of our visit to Manhattan encouraged us to reveal things about ourselves that we'd previously kept hidden.
We walked by a man in jogging clothes who smiled at my girlfriend as if he knew her, and though she said she didn't recognize him, she felt unsettled and admitted that he reminded her of another man. Then she told me a very painful story about something that happened to her in college. She was drinking with a group of friends, and she ended up going to bed with a man she'd only thought of as a friend prior to that night, someone she played soccer with, whom she had never considered sexually. They kissed, and then, before taking any measured steps toward intimacy, they were naked and in the middle of sudden, undiscussed sex. And it was only then that she realized that was not what she wanted. While she talked, she held my arm and stroked it and even leaned up against me. I had my hands stuffed down into the pockets of my jeans.
I found myself walking faster, looking up toward where I thought the museum was. "We'd better hurry," I said. "Or there are going to be lines."
"What?" she said. And I said it again, about the lines and how we ought to start walking more quickly. She went cold. I realized my mistake, and I quickly said some awkward, lukewarm things about the difficulties of being drunk in college, about how hard it is to be young and excited and at the same time understand anything about your intentions. But by then it was too late.
When we arrived at the main entrance to the museum, we didn't go inside. Instead we walked into the park and sat down on a green bench. I still had my hands in my pockets. I was looking away from her, toward the gray stone walls of the museum, which I could see through the tree branches.
She said, "If you can't listen to me, if you can't hear what I'm saying, then I don't want to be with you."
She was right. I couldn't really hear what she was saying. I didn't want to. Her story was painful and scary. It was destroying the image I had of her as a smart, thoughtful, driven woman I wanted to marry. Late that afternoon we both wanted to talk again about what she had told me. But I said things that had the hollow ring of sanctimony. I made lame suggestions: that she must have already reckoned with what had happened that night if she could talk to me about it, and perhaps she could confront the guy now and hash over what had occurred. I even tried to respond with a college story of my own—about being drunk and kicking a woman's door open rather than knocking, because I was under the mistaken impression that such violence might be seen as charming. But nothing I said was right—least of all that last response. This is the worst way of listening—as if someone else's story is little more than a cue to tell one's own. We broke up a few months later.
Now I'm involved with another woman, and I know she has stories that she must tell for us to grow closer, to trust each other, to be more in love. When she tells me a story that changes my idea of her, I work against physically turning away from her or folding my arms, and I don't make her go over the story again, as if there's a chance that it might change. I know that soon she'll tell me the details of the bad times she had in Minneapolis during her first marriage, when her husband worked long hours in a health clinic and was abusive to her at the end of his bad days.
There are so many things I don't want to do: I don't want to get furious at her ex-husband and find that my anger at him keeps me from being calm with her. And I don't want to get upset with her for not leaving him more quickly. I don't want to interrupt her and ask her how she could love such a man. I don't want to feel disappointment or fear or mourning for all that's happened to her in her past and worry over how it might affect our future. I've already made those mistakes. Though I can't explain them perfectly, I know that they grow out of a primary male insecurity, and they fight against my ability to listen.
Now, when I hear her, I'll try to take in who she wants to be in our present. I probably won't stop myself from trying to divine what she might expect from me. I won't offer platitudes, reimaginings, or shrugged shoulders. I'll try to listen to the stories of her past as if they're something that's both a part of and apart from our present. And I'll attempt to love her no matter what as she changes and becomes more complex for me. I might only say, "I'm sorry for what happened then, and I'm happy you're here with me now." I hope she'll tell me that she knows I'm listening. And I think we'll both be aware that listening is as important an act as telling, that both acts are vital, and utterly revealing.