Like many mothers, I learned early on how to develop what I call a “mom mask.” Basically, it’s the face you put on when people ask about your baby (or in my case, babies). Although in many cases, it’s more of a statement than a question. For example, “Aren’t you just over the moon?” or “How lucky are you!” as if an infant landed on your doorstop.
Your response, I found, is critical to surviving this encounter. If you say, “I’m loving every minute,” you earn a smile and a pat on the arm. If, on the other hand, you reply with something like, “I’ve never been this exhausted in my life,” there’s no smile. Instead, you get a guilt-inducing statement, like “wait until they’re teenagers,” or “you need to cherish every moment.” Amusingly, the latter often came while one or both of my kids were in mid-tantrum, making it all the more vexing.
Of course, I realize that most people mean well, but it boggled my mind that they’d ask a question, expecting (and wanting) to hear just one answer. I tried to be compassionate, figuring they had rose-colored glasses, remembering only the sweet moments with their children, and forgetting what it was like to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. But the truth is, when you’re knee-deep in diapers and consider a solo trip to the food store a treat, the last thing you need is guilt for not appreciating the gift of motherhood. And it is a gift, I recognize that.
People who asked how you were, and really wanted to know. One of them was my late aunt Patty (technically she’s my father’s cousin, but she always felt like an aunt to me). I distinctly remember being at a Fourth of July party in 2013, when my twins were just over a year old.
After commenting on how cute my babies were, she skipped right passed the pleasantries and phoniness and said something I’ll never forget: “It’s tough, isn’t it?” A mother (and grandmother) herself, Patty could see through the façade; she knew that even though I was grateful, I was also sleep-deprived, and struggling to find my identity.
At first I wasn’t sure what to say; I’d become so accustomed to reciting lines that I had to think before responding. “Yes,” I said. “It really is.”
The more we spoke, the more relaxed I became. Thanks to her encouragement, I was able to shed the mask — at least for a while. When Patty passed away last week, I immediately thought about that encounter, and as I listened to her daughter speak at her memorial, I realized what it was that made her so special: she saw people.
In fact, the program included the following quote from Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When you’re able to see someone – to really see them – you’re telling them that they matter. You’re giving them validation to feel the way they feel, and permission to be genuine.
During the last few days, I’ve thought a lot about this concept, and I strongly believe that being able to see people isn’t a gift; it’s a skill developed over time. And it starts by learning how to listen. The problem, according to Harvard Business Review, is that most adults think they have it nailed.
In a study of more than 3,500 individuals, researchers found that most people think good listening means not talking when others are speaking, letting others know you’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds, and being able to repeat what you heard, verbatim. In reality, there’s more to it than that.
Through their research, communication experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman came to some interesting conclusions about what constitutes a quality interaction. They found that:
- Rather than a one-way interaction, good listening is often a two-way dialogue. And in fact, “the best conversations are active.”
- Good listening was characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.
- In a productive conversation, feedback flows smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. Although a listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, it’s seen as helpful, rather than an attempt to win an argument.
- Good listening included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider.
It’s about making a conscious effort to hear not only the words being spoken, but the message being communicated. Once we can do that — put aside the desire to make a point or fix the problem — we’ll be better equipped not just to hear people, but to see them.