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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Crisis of Listening

John Deyo is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in San Dimas, California.  He brings wisdom and insight to Wings Like Eagles that has been gained through his professional work, as well as personal experience.

John has a heart for helping people find themselves through their pain, and he works hard to see Life restored to an individual, couple, or family who come to him from a place of hopelessness and despair.

John writes a blog called Metaphoria that is linked to his professional Website.

For more information on John's private practice, and to see other Metaphoria blog entries,click here.

The most recent tragedy in in Newtown, Connecticut and subsequent national discussions have set me pondering not only about the unthinkable act itself, but about the responses it has evoked in our nation.  

It seems clear to me that an event like this makes us feel so powerless, so out of control, that our immediate reaction is to rise up with a great flurry of sometimes-colliding ideas and resolve that we can and must DO something.  We must be able to stop this from ever happening again.  We believe that if we can just take the right steps we CAN control it and eradicate such tragedies: Monitor the mentally ill, create tougher gun control laws and enforce them, arm teachers, post armed sharpshooters in every school, install bulletproof glass and safe rooms in every school, build giant electromagnets to suck all the guns out of every home in every city (okay, I made that one up).  We are Americans, for crying out loud.  We know how to solve problems, right?! 

Maybe all this convulsing to DO something NOW springs from our deep discomfort with the fact that life—especially evil and mortality—are often quite outside our ability to control in the way we perhaps delude ourselves into thinking we can, especially here in the U.S.  I mean, can’t Clint Eastwood just ride coolly into town and get rid of the bad guys? Fix the problem?  The answer is no.  

That is not in any way to imply that we should not try to do all we can to insure safety—especially of our children—whenever and however possible. We should.  At some level, though, we are going to have to accept that there is no way to guarantee something of this nature will never happen again.  Sorry, but once taboos are broken they are nearly impossible to restore.  Mass, senseless shootings are now a ready option for the sick mind to consider, plan, and carry out. 

I too would like to find a “solution” to the awful quandary presented us by such tragedies.  I have no grand scheme to resolve it.  I am just not that smart, though I wish I were.  All I can do is offer my own little corner of perspective as a mental health professional.  

First of all, it is impossible for even highly skilled and experienced mental health professionals to predict dangerous behaviors with 100% accuracy.  Even if they could that would not account for individuals who are not in or seeking treatment for their problems. Secondly, not everyone who does these things is “crazy;” sick—probably; really, really angry—likely, but not necessarily insane in the forensic psychology use of that term.  Beside this, many individuals who have diagnosed/diagnosable mental disorders do not and will not pose a resultant threat to anyone.  Do you want to be on the “Crazies List” because you have had depression?  Me neither.

That said, I do have one suggestion for us as a society:  We desperately need to learn to be better listeners.  Most of us aren’t very good at it, even if we think we are.  Good listening is a skill and an art. It is rarely naturally intuitive for us to listen well.  We are much more interested in being heard.  

What most of us who are therapists offer our clients—if nothing else—is something we all long for: to be really heard, seen, and valued.  It always starts with and centers on listening.  I mean real listening, deep listening.  Not just hearing words, not distracted quasi-attention, not judging, and not using what the other says as a springboard for you to defend yourself or tell your tale or make your point.  It is not an easy or natural skill to learn and employ but boy, do we need to cultivate more of it (but not too much or I will be out of a job).  

When was the last time you felt deeply heard, seen and valued in a conversation? I will bet it has been a while.  

I can’t help but wonder if some of those who have resorted to violence might have been screaming for someone to really hear and see and value them.  I know from my experience with clients dealing with anger control problems is that one powerful trigger for anger is often the helpless feeling of not feeling heard or understood.  They just fly into a rage to get someone to hear what they really mean/feel/want. It is, of course, very infantile but effective in its own dysfunctional way. (Think of the power of a raging, screaming baby to make great big adults jump into action to figure out what Junior wants or needs). 
It is interesting that one of the primary feelings evoked in us over these incidents is that terrible feeling of helplessness.  Maybe such perpetrators have succeeded in making us feel what they felt, even if they were doing so unconsciously.  Might, just might, there have been a possibility that they would have changed course if someone took the time to “get them,” if someone had been listening—really listening?  Perhaps not, but I say it is worth the effort to become better listeners.  If nothing else, what if by listening someone hears and responds to a dangerous and primal scream that is ready to explode in a violent expression of helpless rage?  Maybe there will be a different ending next time.  

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