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S2 EP158 – The Cat’s Cradle: The Art of Listening

Episode Summary

Really listening to someone and caring about their feelings is a great gift, but it is important to understand when listening is appropriate and when it is not. Discover when it’s kind to yourself to listen to someone and when is it kind to yourself to walk away. And what about when you get trapped with an over-talker or you are the over-talker? 


Hi everyone. Dr. Margaret Paul and Dr. Erika Chopich here with the Inner Bonding podcast. Today, we want to speak to the importance of learning to listen. Once again, Erika came up with this topic and the title, and here is what she wants to share about it.

(Erika) Magic is our ranch cat. Actually, she’s more than that – she’s also our house cat and our friend. It didn’t start out that way as she was feral when we got her as a kitten. She grew up in our barn and now at the tender age of nine she has a fabulous relationship with my mare Princess Leia and with all the barn team and with our dog and with us. She has full run of the house and ranch and is extremely affectionate and playful with everyone she meets. It wasn’t always this way. It took her time to gain trust in people after being feral.

Magic has a vocabulary of at least 30 different vocalizations that I’ve counted, and she also communicates with facial expressions and endless tail movements. Even though I don’t always understand everything she is saying, somehow, we seem to understand each other, and I realized one day that in being a cat, her communications are far more subtle than our dog Pippin or any of our horses. Even when she asks to be fed or wants to play, she communicates it to us in very small subtle ways and this has taught me to pay attention. From magic, I have learned that listening is more than a skill – it is an art form. It truly is a cat’s cradle to hear the delicacy and the subtleties of what she communicates to me.

The same thing is true in our relationships. Do you take the time to pick up all the subtle communications that someone gives you, or are you more interested in speaking and being heard? Speaking to Magic has little effect on our relationship as she simply ignores me. I have found that this is OK because it’s not my job to lead her verbally. It is my job to learn from her by listening.

As I was working to help Magic integrate into our family, I was obsessed with getting her the perfect cat toys. Once I even bought her a fake fish that lays on the floor and if she walks by it begins to flop wildly around the floor. I thought that this would be a great toy for her, but she had a different idea. As soon as I put it on the floor, she walked over to it and the fake fish began flopping wildly. She immediately sniffed it, then looked at me with her ears back, then glared at me and walked away. She seemed to be saying “Get real granny!” It took me forever to discover that what she really wanted was the absolute beauty and simplicity of a peacock feather!

It was only by staying completely present with her when she’s around that I began to understand the subtleties of her need for special toys, her favorite snacks, her favorite foods, her favorite scratching places, and what really makes her purr. My speaking to her had little impact on our relationship because she was in fact feral to begin with and was never raised with the sound of the human voice.

The other choice she really likes is a flat toy that sits on the floor with a ping pong ball inside that she can bat around and around its track. She also uses the same toy to communicate a need to me. She will sit in the center of the toy and stare at me till she gets my attention, and that is my cue to take her a little bit of catnip. She communicates what she needs to me by sitting in a certain place, in a certain way, with a certain look on her face that says, “I’d like my catnip now please.”

I have observed over the years that Magic communicates differently with different people or animals than with me. For example, she likes to headbutt me and mark her scent directly on my skin, but with Margaret she’d rather kiss nose to nose. With my mare Princess Leia she likes to arch her back and rub up against Leia’s leg and Leia always responds by dropping a mouthful of hay on her as though she were attempting to feed her! She communicates with Pippin simply by touching nose to nose and then slapping him on the forehead – which he loves! She clearly has different subtle relationships with everyone she meets. The trick is to be such an observant listener that you’re able to interpret her likes and her dislikes.

Magic has taught me how to listen, how to observe, and how to communicate with my energy and not my words. And that is truly magical

(Margaret) Some years ago, renowned singer and social activist Alanis Morrissette, who has been a big proponent of Inner Bonding, gave a keynote talk at the ‘Emerging Women’ conference in Boulder, Colorado. She invited me to attend, and I was delighted to hear her speak. Instead of giving a monologue, she had a dialogue with Tami Simon, the CEO of Sounds True, who interviewed her. The dialogue was about relationships with self, others, and God. One of the topics she spoke about was how important it is to her to have connection with people, which she can’t do when they don’t listen.

Alanis is originally from Canada, and she said that she was so surprised when she first came to L.A. to discover that, unlike in Canada, people rarely listened. She found people talking on and on, and when she did speak up, they often interrupted her to go on and on again. Being a highly sensitive introvert, she struggled with what to do. She tried speaking up more, but finally settled on being quiet and then choosing to only be with people who listen – who want a true dialogue, rather than a monologue.

If connection with others is important to you, then you need to cultivate the art of listening. 

Are you a good listener or a poor listener?

  • When the other person is talking, do you really hear what they are saying, or are you focused instead on what you want to say?
  • Do you offer true heartfelt responses to what the other person has just said, letting them know that you really hear them and get them, or do you go off on something about you?
  • Do you ask questions to deepen the conversation with the other person, or do you constantly shift the conversation to whatever it is you want to say?
  • Do you wait until the other person is finished with what they are saying, or do you keep interrupting?
  • Do you maintain eye contact, or do you look around while they are talking?
  • Is your energy accepting and understanding, or are you judgmental – either in your mind or out loud?

Part of the art of listening and cultivating connection is also listening to your own feelings. If you find yourself feeling bored, it could be that the other person is only interested in talking and not in having a connected dialogue. If you discover that this is true – that they keep going on and on and interrupting you and are not able to also listen to or hear you – then you might want to find a way to lovingly disengage and then not seek out that person for connected time together.

I love being with people who are not only good listeners, but who also bring their vitality and aliveness to the conversation. I love being inspired by people, and I’m inspired by people who are connected with themselves and their guidance so that they can connect with me. Connected people don’t need to monopolize the conversation because they don’t need to get filled by the other person – they come to the conversation already filled and ready to share their fullness.

If connecting with others is important to you, then practice developing the art of listening – with yourself, with your guidance and with others. Be discerning regarding who you can have a deeply connected conversation with and who is too self-centered and disconnected from themselves to connect with you. If you feel lonely or bored with someone, check inside to make sure you are open hearted and connected with yourself, and if you are, then your loneliness or boredom is letting you know that the other person is not open and present with you. You are not required to care-take them by politely listening while they go on and on! Listen to your feelings and learn to take loving care of yourself.

It’s especially important to develop the art of listening with your close relationships – your partner, children, and family.

In 1974, Dr. Virginia Satir presented the concept of mirroring in her groundbreaking book, “Conjoint Family Therapy.”

In 1975 Dr. Thomas Gordon wrote a best-selling book called “Parent Effectiveness Training.” In the book he taught parents to “active listen,” which means to reflect back to the speaker the feelings and information they are trying to convey.

Mirroring, or active listening, is a powerful tool, but whether or not it works depends upon your intent.

If you are active listening to another with an agenda to get them to see what they are doing wrong, or to get them to listen to you after you listen to them, then your intent in listening is to control. The person you are listening to can easily pick up the energy of control and will get angry or go into resistance. Listening with the intention to control backfires and creates confusion in communication – especially with a partner and children.

However, active listening from a true desire to understand another’s feelings and point of view can be magical. When you listen to learn and understand, rather than to control, you give the other person a great gift.

We all want to be heard and understood. While it is our responsibility to hear and understand ourselves – our own feelings and needs – and take loving action for ourselves, it also feels wonderful when someone we care about hears and understands us. This is the basis of emotional intimacy – with both people and with animals, as with our cat Magic.

When I work with couples, I teach them that there are two healthy ways of dealing with conflict:

When you really desire to understand another, you move into an intent to learn – both about yourself and about them. Actively listening to the other is a major aspect of learning. When you really want to deeply know another, you listen carefully and let them know you understand what they are saying and feeling. It is not a matter of agreeing with them, but of understanding them. It is not about changing them or changing yourself, but about really hearing them and attempting to see the world through their eyes – understanding the good reasons they have for feeling and behaving as they do. If they are really upset and are available for a loving hug, this can be a big help in letting them know you understand their feelings.

It’s also important to know the difference between when to listen to your partner or parent or friend, and when to lovingly disengage.

For example, my client, Chad, said to me in a session, “I cringe every time Debra says to me, ‘Let’s talk about our relationship.”

“What is it about talking about your relationship that makes you cringe?” I asked.

“It always seems to be about something I’m doing that she is upset about and wants me to change,” he said.

“Then why do you listen?” I asked.

“Aren’t I supposed to listen?” he said. “Aren’t people supposed to talk about their relationship? Aren’t I supposed to care about her feelings?”

 “Yes,” I answered. “It’s wonderful when people can openly talk about their relationship, with a deep desire to learn about themselves and each other. But when one person wants to talk about what the other is doing wrong, it doesn’t feel good, and it won’t get anywhere. That kind of talking is about controlling rather than learning. Learning leads to resolution and intimacy, while controlling leads to distance and distress. So it is much kinder to yourself not to listen when Debra just wants to talk about what you are doing wrong. When she is doing that, she is making you responsible for her feelings.”

“So should I just walk away when she is upset?” he asked. “That seems really cold and uncaring.”

“Do you want to be responsible for her feelings?” I asked him.

“No. So what do I say when she says, ‘Let’s talk about our relationship'”? He asked.

“Chad, what would make you feel really great to say?” I asked him.

“I guess I would love to say something like, “If what you want to talk about is what I’m doing wrong, I’m not interested.  I’m happy to talk when you want to learn with me, but not when you are blaming me for your feelings.”

“That sounds great!” I said.

“Yeah, but Debra is going to be furious,” he said.

“So,” I said, “are you going to take loving care of yourself, or are you going to try to control her anger by giving yourself up and listening to her? That is just as controlling as her blaming you!”

“Oh…humm, I never thought of it that way,” he said. I’m trying to control her when I listen to her?”

“Well, why do you listen to her when you don’t want to?” I asked him.

“So she won’t get angry…Oh, I see what you mean. I am trying to control how she feels about me by giving myself up.”

“Right,” I said. “It will take a lot of courage to not listen to her when she is wanting to control you, but it is the only way of moving out of your codependent system and into personal responsibility for yourself.” 

How often do you listen to someone when you don’t want to?

Whether it is a partner, a friend, a relative, you are trying to control their feelings when you don’t want to listen to them, but you listen anyway.

Are you afraid of hurting their feelings? Are you afraid of their anger? You will have the courage to walk away only when you understand that it is not loving to yourself or to them to listen when they are blaming, judging, or in some way making you responsible for their happiness, worth, or lovability.

Listening to another is wonderful when the intent is to learn. It is much kinder to yourself to disengage when the intent is to control. As you learn and practice Inner Bonding, you will learn to know when it is kind to yourself to listen, and when it is kind to disengage.

What about when someone is going on and on and you can’t get in a word edgewise? What does this person want from you? Most of the time they are operating from a talking addiction, using their talking to get your attention. They have abandoned themselves and are pulling on you to fill them up and make them feel okay. Is it your responsibility to fill them up with your attention? Not if it is not what you want to do. So will you stay trapped in listening to them to avoid hurting their feelings, or will you take responsibility for yourself and lovingly disengage?

Non-stop talking is about using others for attention and approval because of not giving yourself enough attention and approval. When you are over-talking, you are not actually offering anything to the listener. Instead, by going on and on with a monologue, you are pulling energy from the listener. 

Do you get trapped listening to an over-talker?

People who end up listening to an over-talker go on and on are often caretakers who are afraid to hurt the talker by disengaging or by telling the truth about their boredom.

Talkers are often needy people who attempt to assuage their emptiness by trapping people into listening to them. For example, I’ve seen people telling a bank teller their life story, while the trapped teller doesn’t know how to disengage without being impolite. The problem is that one of the reasons these people are without friends is that no one wants to be with them. It’s draining to be at the other end of a needy person who uses talking as a way to fill up.

If you are addicted to talking, perhaps you believe that you are being interesting when you go on and on about yourself. However, you might reconsider the truth of this belief if you find that many people avoid you. Most people will not tell you the truth – that they feel tired, drained and trapped in your presence, and bored by your talking about yourself or going into excruciating detail about something that holds no interest for you. Not wanting to offend you, people just stay away rather speak their truth. They don’t answer the phone when they know it’s you, and they find any excuse to not spend time with you. It’s not that they don’t like you – it’s that they don’t want to be used by you to fill up your emptiness.

What do you do when you are with a person who goes on and on with a monologue, barely taking a breath between sentences?

Are you more concerned with not hurting their feelings, or with taking loving care of yourself?

  • Do you smile and nod, pretending to listen while seeking a way out?
  • When there is a breath between sentences, do you continue to engage in the conversation, only to have them continue to go on and on?
  • Do you look around, acting restless or impatient, but continue to listen?
  • Do you tune them out, thinking of other things, yet stay in their presence?

How do you feel when you do any of these things? Trapped? Irritated? Bored? Pulled on? Angry? Invisible? You might want to explore why caretaking the talking addict is more important to you than taking care of your own feelings. What is the fear behind the caretaking? Why would you ignore responsibility for your own feelings?

Perhaps you just don’t know what else to do. If this is the case, here are some suggestions, which you can apply to any situation when you feel trapped, bored, or pulled on.

  • If the person is someone you are not connected with – like someone you just met at a party who cornered you – interrupt them, smiling compassionately, perhaps tapping them gently on the arm, saying, “Excuse me,” and walk away. You don’t owe them an explanation.
  • If it is someone you are in a relationship with, or someone you want to stay connected with, you can say things like:
    • “I would really love to connect with you, but I can’t when we are having a one-way conversation. Can we have a dialogue instead of a monologue?”
    • “There must be a good reason that you keep talking instead of us talking back and forth. I’d like to understand that.”
    • Or, “I have things I’d like to share with you. Are you interested in listening?”

If you don’t want to say anything, you can interrupt and change the topic of conversation, talking about something that interests you.

If it’s someone you know well and the two of you have spoken about this issue previously, you can say in a light tone of voice something like, “Now it’s my turn to talk!” or “Time’s up! My turn!”

Learning how to be a good listener is vital for creating loving relationships, and equally vital is learning how to listen to and take loving care of yourself in those situations with people who want to blame you or use you to fill themselves up. I encourage you to practice the art of listening with both yourself and with others.

I invite you to join me to me in 30-Day online video relationship course: Wildly, Deeply, Joyously in Love.

And you can learn so much about loving yourself and creating loving relationships from my recent books:

And we have much to offer you at our website at

I’m sending you my love and my blessings.

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