I recently started reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It’s an extremely interesting book that looks at the history of the concepts of extrovert and introvert and reclaims the power of introversion from the negative image it has acquired these days. Introversion, it suggests, is not something to be overcome, but a way of being, thinking and viewing the world that has great strengths, especially when they are valued, recognized and utilised for what they are.
This has started a train of thought for me about listening. Actually, not just listening, but hearing, seeing and understanding, although listening seems a good place to start. Introverts are generally good listeners, but it is often that they need to be heard, as much if not more, than the extroverts. It is frequently the less obvious and outgoing who are longing for the world to listen and acknowledge their thoughts and ideas, to recognize their talents, skills and creativity as no less worthy than their extrovert siblings, friends or colleagues. Just because someone doesn’t tell you how brilliant they are, doesn’t mean they don’t have hidden genius if you care to look for it.
When I first became interested in talking therapies, I began to realise how little people really listen when having a conversation. So often, conversations seem to be more an opportunity for people to speak than to listen: it’s almost as though one waits for the other to finish speaking, so that they can have their turn. It becomes a trade of information without any real understanding of what the other person is feeling or experiencing. It is talking for the sake of making noise, for filling the silence, for social lubrication. I actually am not averse to small-talk, it fulfils a role in society and it would be an isolated and silent world without it, but let’s hope that it is never the only kind of conversation that someone experiences. I heard once (I think it was on Oprah Behind the Scenes), that Aboriginal Australians pause before speaking in a conversation, because they don’t try to listen and think about what they are going to say at the same time. Out of respect, they listen while you are talking and then decide how they will respond. I love this idea, and wish we could at least attempt it in our fast-paced, fast-talking, ‘trying to get a word in edge-ways’ sort of society. Imagine how different Prime Minister’s Question Time would be with a little more listening and respect!
I feel that homeopaths are in a very privileged position with regard to listening. Our job is to listen to people’s life stories, and I have never encountered one, whether from extrovert or introvert, that was anything less than fascinating. The founding father of homeopathy, Dr Samuel Hahnemann, wrote that a homeopath should be “The unprejudiced observer”, and this position of listening and seeing without judgement is the best possible way of achieving understanding. He also urges us, as the Aboriginal peoples do, to listen first and think afterwards. This is where homeopathy can be so useful too, in that it gives us a framework for thinking and understanding, by looking at the whole person and filtering that through the concepts of remedies and remedy states. This often enables us and our clients to make connections that they had not previously discovered.
It will probably come as no surprise at this stage when I say that I lean more towards the introvert camp than the extrovert! Growing up, I was desperate to find someone who would ask me what I thought, rather than assuming I didn’t have an opinion. I believe that is partly why I became a musician: it’s one way to find your voice without actually having to speak. I am not having a go at extroverts though – we absolutely need all kinds of people in this world, those who shout their passions from the roof-tops and those whose quiet creativity makes discoveries in the silence of their offices. I am lucky in that I have found a place where my quiet qualities can be beneficial and are acknowledged, but not everyone is so fortunate. So, I would urge all of us to open our ears and hear, to notice those who are not shouting, to wonder what their story is, and to listen.
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