On a recent trip to Germany, my husband, S, and I found ourselves at the front desk of our hotel. A lot. It’s easy to shrug off how difficult it is to navigate a foreign country until you’re trying to use a map you can’t actually read. Sure, it sounds easy enough when the concierge is speaking English and making clear circles with her nice little pen on the neat little map layed out in front of you. But when you step out onto the street and realize you can’t pronounce or read the name of the street you’re starting out on, well, it’s hard to ignore the obvious obstacles.
As we headed in the general direction we needed to go, my husband began questioning how in the world (except he didn’t say world) we were going to find this place. I assured him I had understood what the woman at the front desk was telling us and that I knew where we were going. Just trust me. He didn’t. We proceeded to ask several people along the way where the heck (again not the actual word used) we were, until we were on the right track. Literally. We had to find the correct train line. Turns out, it was what I had been saying all along. S was wary that I had done anything but guess right. Yet the same thing happened again the next day. S questioned how in the world (fill in the blank) I knew what our guide had said. I casually touted, I know because I know how to listen. I listen with my whole being. I listen to people for a living. It’s what I do.
Later that night I thought about that statement. I had said it rather defensively in response to feeling slighted, but I was right. It is what I do and I’m good at it. Almost two decades of learning and practicing the art of real listening has taught me a few things about how to do it well. I hear details. I hear nuance. I pick up on body language and tone. I absorb all the ways people communicate as a whole, not just the words they are saying. I know how to read what people aren’t saying as well as what they are. I listen to murmured remarks that trail off at the end of a sentence (this is usually the juicy stuff that clients aren’t ready to commit to saying full force – important stuff to pay attention to as a psychotherapist). I’ve done this for so long that I do it automatically. I do it in both in my professional life and my personal life. Um. Wait a minute. Woa. Hey! I have this amazing set of skills! I remember those!
After more than a year away from regular professional work, on maternity leave, I needed to know that again. It felt good to be connected to that part of myself, and to acknowledge these skills. Skills I don’t want to take for granted, lest they lose their power and the value of my clinical efficacy declines significantly. I’m sure I use these skills every day when I attempt to meet the needs of my little ones, since one of them doesn’t actually speak words yet. But it is such a routine for me that I don’t take notice. I just do. As is the case for most of us on a daily basis, unless a conscious effort is made. Or some situation out of our norm forces us to remind ourselves of how great we are. Which is necessary every now and again.
And so I encourage you to shake things up a bit, step out of your routine, and force yourselves to acknowledge and use your unique set of skills. You don’t have to fly to Germany to do this (though I highly recommend it, they are SUPER nice there). There are an infinite number of ways to step out of your routine, it’s impossible to name each and every one. I’ll bet you can think of a few. Here are a few I’ve given to clients over the years:
* Wake up 15-20 minutes earlier and do something for yourself. Read a book or a magazine, go for a walk, drink a cup of coffee in peace, gather your thoughts in a way other than trying to tune out the ticking clock or your children’s whining. Changing things up just slightly in the morning can set an entirely different tone for the day.
* Turn on music or update your playlist. Choose something you haven’t listen to in a long time, or try something different. Turn off NPR for the day (you can always get the podcast) and groove to a different tune. Music connects us to parts of ourselves that we often bury under layers of to-do’s and years of habits.
* Get your daily dose of caffeine (or lunch or dinner or crossiant) from a different cafe. Whether you live in the city, the suburbs, or the middle of nowhere, I’m willing to bet there are new places to discover. Go see what your neighborhood has to offer.
* Join something. A book group, an exercise class, a coffee club (can you tell I love my coffee?), a playgroup for your kids, a committee at school or work. Surround yourself with some new blood and a new purpose. It doesn’t have to be huge, it can be a once a month commitment. As we get older we tend to extend ourselves to new people less and less often. We hole up in our comfort zone. Step out of that comfort zone and mingle with different people.
There are just a very few. What are some ways you shake up your routine?