Dialogue and Irritation

I’m prompted to write a little about the group verbal inquiry because of some dynamics in our last group meeting, as well as some experiences at the recent retreat at Springwater that I attended.

In the group we are purposely abstaining from some of the usual ways of communicating – giving advice, rattling off experiences, telling our stories and encouraging others to tell their stories, encouraging or acknowledging each other – in order to leave room for the possibility of a deeper listening. By deeper listening, I am thinking of the possibility of hearing myself as I speak, hearing where I’m coming from, what I’m trying to convey, if anything. Deeper listening for me has come to mean listening to the words of other people and letting those words sink in. To do this I usually have to refrain from my habitual quick reaction. Deeper listening also seems to require that I am patient with the fact that I may not understand what someone is saying or that there is a conversation going on between two people that doesn’t involve me.

The usual ways of talking mentioned above may give a sense of safety to ordinary conversation. I may feel that I can communicate in a social setting pretty well because I say the things that make other people feel good about me. In a setting where we put aside those “niceties,” some people may feel uncomfortable. Of course there are other people who don’t feel comfortable in ordinary conversation. I don’t know if they will feel even more uncomfortable when we drop the conventions or if they will feel relief that they can just speak honestly or just listen.

In part because of the fact that the usual conventions of conversation have been put aside, there are some dynamics that happen in the groups that I think are helpful to recognize. In fact part of the value of the group inquiry is to have a chance to hear how we listen, react and talk. I’m just talking about these from my own observations, which may not be everyone’s experience. I have seen in myself and others a certain kind of irritation come up. For me this irritation often goes along with a feeling that I don’t understand what someone else is saying. It may sound superficial to me or it may sound like they are just talking on and on. The irritation sometimes goes along with the feeling that I haven’t got the energy to listen to this – that the other person’s talking is somehow sapping my energy. Often there is a judgment that also goes along with this that the other person is being heady or is out of touch or is dominating or controlling the group. And there is the feeling that this is not what I want to have happen. I want to have the energy go in a different way.

I used to feel pretty convinced that my judgment of the other person was correct. Recently in a Springwater group I felt that someone was just talking superficially and that the kind of thing they were talking about wasn’t helpful. I said this out loud to the group, maybe as a question, with some irritation in my voice, “Why are you saying this? This doesn’t sound to me like it’s helpful.” Another participant in the group spoke up then and said that what the person had said had in fact been very helpful to them. I believed what this person said.

Another time I said something in that group that I thought really addressed what was going on in a discussion between a few of us. Someone else (who I’ve known for many years) said something to the effect that what I said was just a lot of empty words, that it was too intellectual. I asked the group if everyone felt that way and two people said that on the contrary they thought that what I’d said really did address what we were talking about.

As strong as my feelings (and other people’s feelings) were that someone’s words were superficial, intellectual, maybe self-centered, it turns out that this is not the whole truth. This is a beginning, for me, of really questioning how I’m hearing other people.

Consider how damaging it is to oneself and others to come out of a meeting really believing that certain people were inconsiderate, irritating, insensitive to others, too intellectual. It would be nice if this kind of dynamic can come out in the meetings with some transparency. By this I mean hearing these reactions going on in oneself and continuing to listen anyway, with patience, to see what really unfolds. It may also be helpful for someone to bring up that they are, perhaps, not comfortable with how the conversation is going. After all, the group is a place for issues that are live right now to come out. What is more live and present than the strong feeling that someone else in the group is being a huge, irritating jerk? Is there a way to bring up this feeling with an interest in seeing our own buttons that are being pushed as well as an interest in and respect for the other person?

After our last meeting in Albuquerque someone was kind enough to call me and give some feedback. The person said that at one point I had sounded irritated, maybe angry, and that my voice sounded like I was straining against something. How rare it is for someone to give such honest feedback, and no wonder! We usually react against this kind of information, thinking “they don’t really understand where I was coming from” or “I was justified to act that way,” etc., etc. But it can also be possible to just listen to the feedback – without knowing if it is accurate or not – and see for oneself what it points out.

This same person also said that I was advocating “oblivion.” She said this in response to something that I said about listening without any self-perspective whatsoever. She apparently interpreted this as oblivion, though I don’t know what oblivion means to her. I wouldn’t use the word oblivion as it has nothing to do with an annihilation of the senses or of intelligence or love. On the contrary, I was referring to a setting aside of the very thing that blocks the free flow of sensing, feeling, clear thinking and compassion. It was good that she brought up her interpretation. It’s possible that she believed thoroughly that I was talking about oblivion. This seems to be how our interpretations of each other work. We have an interpretation and we believe it’s precise. It’s so helpful to bring up something like this – not just to stuff it into the back room of the mind and go away thinking that people in the group have weird ideas.

I wonder if it’s possible for anyone to just start from scratch in the verbal inquiry assuming that our reactions to other people are probably not accurate and often not even close to what’s going on. Then we need to listen patiently to each other and ask some questions to see if we can understand where the other person is coming from. Or just let the words and sounds come in without needing to make too much sense of them right now.

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