“What if there was something you could learn that you didn’t know you needed to learn, but once you did, a great many parts of your life would work much, much better?” This was the opening gambit offered by the leader of a training I was required to take back in the day. I was taking this training because I wanted to work with children who’d suffered significant losses, children going through unexpected and often overwhelming grief. Needless to say, I was intrigued.
Next, the trainer put up a Powerpoint slide that depicted a brain cell. “This is a neuron,” she said. “It’s the basic building block of your brain – the fundamental live wire that makes up your neural network. It and its 86 billion sisters and brothers are mostly responsible for what you do and who you are. What do you notice about it?” One by one the dozen of us in the room began telling her things we noticed about the picture below.
“It looks like a plant.” “It looks like an alien creature.” “It looks scary.”
“Good,” the trainer said when we were done. “And any time you find yourself emotionally overwhelmed while you’re working with the kids, this is what you’ll do – you’ll simply ‘Say what you see.’ This will be your default response when you get overwhelmed, when you don’t know what to say or what to do – Say What You See.”
Until I actually tried it, I thought this was a really stupid idea. But not caring the least about what I thought, the kids lit up in response every time I tried it. They were joyfully responding to simply being seen with nothing added. Here’s a great visual metaphor for what our work accomplished: Healing Broken Hearts.
Seeing the Obvious Unseen
“There’s something about this brain cell that you’ve noticed but you haven’t really seen,” the trainer continued. “Look at the proportions of dendrite roots to axon boutons. It turns out that axons speak and dendrites listen. Just looking at this cell it becomes clear what the brain thinks is most important. Well, we’re going to spend the rest of this training exploring just how poorly most of you listen and just how challenging a personal practice listening turns out to be, especially when you get serious about it, like I know you all are. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here, right?”
The remainder of the weekend was spent with the trainer being true to her word – we did indeed learn how challenging deeply listening could be and that we all pretty much sucked at it. One small part of what made it challenging was that when we created an environment that made it safe for people to tell us deep and tender truths – inevitably they would end up triggering emotional reactivity in us that we weren’t expecting. Caught off guard, we weren’t in any way prepared or comfortable showing tears to the kids or their parents.
“Nobody’s here just ‘for the children,’ the trainer said, emphasizing with quote fingers. “Each of you is also here to help the child in you, the child you once were that lives on in memory. None of us escapes childhood unscathed; your work with these kids is bound to mirror some aspects of your own painful beginnings. Holding this space together for the kids and deeply listening to their pain and suffering can turn out to be deeply healing for each of you. Be ready for it.”
And it unquestion- ably was. For more than the 20 years I remained involved as a volunteer with the Children’s Pro- gram that a small group of friends and I started back in the early 90s. It was only the second such program in the country at the time, which seems hard to believe here in the 21st century.
We also learned a lot of other things that weekend about how children learn and grow and heal. The presence of other children in the same boat was important, as was the proximity of adults intentionally creating the healing space, holding it and insuring that it remained safe. So, was a minimal use of words, combined with a lot of art and physical activities – traumatic experiences mostly get stored in the brain and body away from the language-generating centers. We also learned that being listened to and learning to fully listen to others is not only a large part of how healing happens, it’s also how learning happens. Dendrites do outnumber axons for a reason – they’re the best brain parts we’ve got to help heal our own broken hearts.
Because I feel this topic is SO important for secure attachment, beneficial relationships and brain network health and integration, I’m making a digital copy of my latest book, Fierce Listening available for $2.00 all week. Click HERE and find out if your heart knows what you need.