Listening

By Galen T.

Many of us are familiar with the events that brought AA’s two founders together for the first time. On May 11th of 1935 Bill found himself pacing back and forth in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, OH. At one end of the lobby was a bar and at the other a public phone. He had gone to Akron to pursue a business deal. The deal had fallen through and Bill, several months sober, wanted to drink. As Bill felt lured by the alcohol-fueled chatter and laughter spilling out of the bar, he realized that he needed to talk to another alcoholic. So he went to the phone and after a number of calls connected with a local resident, Henrietta Seiberling. Ms. Seiberling was not herself an alcoholic, but was a member of the Oxford Group and had been trying for years to help a fellow member, Dr. Bob Smith, kick his alcoholism.  

Henrietta immediately recognized the opportunity that Bill’s need presented for her project of sobering up Bob and invited him to come to her house immediately.  She would get Dr. Bob over and the two men could talk. As it happened, Bob was at that moment lying drunk under his dining room table, so the meeting was postponed until the next day.

Bill got there first. Bob arrived a few minutes later accompanied by his determined wife. He looked unwell and out of sorts, and had stipulated to his wife that he would stay no longer than 15 minutes.  After introductions, however, Bill and Bob repaired to a private room and emerged five hours later. During this time they discovered the founding principle of Alcoholics Anonymous—conversation and the sharing of experiences between one alcoholic and another.

By the time Bill met Dr. Bob he had already discovered that preaching at active alcoholics about the moral and physical perils of drink did little good. When he and Bob talked at Ms. Seiberling’s they discovered that what could help alcoholics is telling one another their stories. And they discovered the obvious corollary—that telling stories of defeat and despair requires a receptive listener, in this case another alcoholic. This dynamic of speaking and listening, of sharing at depth, not just of defeat and despair but then of hope, deliverance, and healing, is still, 80 years later, the foundation of AA’s spiritual vitality.

It is impossible to spend much time in AA without getting caught up in rhythms of speaking and listening that lie at the heart of our fellowship—from our regular meetings, including the before and after talk, to the more extended before-and-after-the-meeting gatherings around coffee and food.  There are also the intimate exchanges among close friends, and the sponsor-sponsee relationship that has played such an important role in many of our recoveries. There is nothing more important to the future of AA than our continued capacity to listen attentively and receptively to each other. We make this  commitment to each other because we have experienced how essential it is to our healing and recovery.

I have learned the most about listening through sponsoring other men. Initially, I found that I didn’t want to listen to them for more than a few minutes. I wanted them to be brief and to the point, so that I did not get distracted or bored, and so that I could give them a word of advice and send them on their way with their problem or issue fixed.      

As time passed, however, I noticed sponsees rarely took my advice, even when they had asked for it. They were really looking for something else, even if they didn’t know what this something was.   

As I experimented with not giving so much advice and instead asking more questions, it came to me that my sponsees were not looking for answers to their problems but for somebody who would listen as they sorted through them. This set me on a path of improving my listening skills. This meant that I stopped interrupting them with constant  comments and observations. I quieted my mind’s persistent desire to pass quick judgments on everything I heard. I learned through practice to listen carefully and restrict myself to questions of clarification or ones that might help the other person connect more deeply with their experiences and feelings.

I am not sure what to call this kind of listening. It is not active listening, since this involves the constant evaluation of what is being said for the purpose of making an effective response. The kind of listening I am talking about pays close attention to the other person, to both the surface content and the underlying feelings. So perhaps it can be called attentive listening. Or compassionate listening, since it embodies a caring desire to understand the other person. It is something we can give others that promotes more healing than our best advice giving. 

The further along I am in recovery, the more it strikes me that I came into AA in a state of trauma. My trauma was not as severe as that borne by people who have been physically and sexually abused. But when I walked into my first meeting my life was crashing in on my family and me. I had lost my job, my career, and my house. I was a self-confident person who suddenly realized he did not know how to live. Many of those I see coming into the program today are in a similar state. To recover, they need to face and make peace with a painful, perhaps calamitous past, while building a new identity and a new future. 

My sponsees have helped me to see that one of the ways in which we do this is through the simple act of talking.  Personality psychologists call it narration and have written about how we all deconstruct the past and construct our future through verbal expression.  

Experts in the healing of serious trauma agree that after establishing basic conditions of safety the survivor needs to tell her story, not necessarily everything in one sitting, but eventually, as Judith Herman says in her classic Trauma and Recovery, “completely, in depth and in detail.” This telling of traumatic events from the past needs to be accompanied by a reexperiencing and expression of emotions. The verbal articulation of her story transforms the traumatic material so it can be integrated into the survivor’s life and form a springboard rather than a block to future growth. 

In the case of severe trauma this work usually needs to be done with highly trained professionals and even the lesser traumas most of us bring into recovery can benefit from therapeutic help. But our relationships within the fellowship, whether with friends or a sponsor, can also help us to recount and integrate painful events from the past, often through thorough step work. We clear away oppressive guilt and shame from the past and identify self-destructive patterns that have hobbled us for years. We can then move to integrate the lessons of the past and put them to use in helping others. This happens through talking and being listened to. Through conversation we shed an old identity and build a new one on a different foundation.

Most contemporary personality psychologists agree that ingredients, or levels, make up the human personality. First, we all have dispositional traits. These are fairly fixed features of our makeup such as extraversion, playfulness, orderliness, and so on. The second level is comprised of characteristic adaptations.  These are more fluid and include interests, attitudes, coping skills, and relational styles.

But neither of these levels speaks to the question of individual meaning and purpose in our lives human life—the unique particularities that make us who we are. This third level, that of narrative identity, is forged by the stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives. Through the out-loud, spoken narration of our stories and lives to one another we make sense of who we are—we process the significance of the past into our ever-evolving present and define our future by narrating to each other both our past and present.  This is how we give our lives meaning and direction.

Developing a narrative identity is a critical part of healing for people emerging from all kinds of trauma, including that of addiction, and whose sense of self is fragmented and diffuse. It takes place through talking and so depends on the availability of people who can listen with patience and compassion. Through talking and being listened to we process reality and give structure, meaning, and purpose to our lives and the lives of others.

Empathetic listening does not come naturally to most of us. It leaves us exposed and vulnerable to the pain and struggle of others and the messiness of human life. Daily meditation helps, as does the intentional cultivation of compassion for people we don’t like.  

Today our willingness and capacity for listening is challenged by the ever-beckoning lure of contemporary communications technologies, especially the cell phone. It is not just that we can fall into using these gadgets instead of paying attention to those around us. Sherry Turkle, a research psychologist and technologist at MIT, in her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, shows how our obsessive relationship with technology fosters self-absorption, turns us in on ourselves, and degrades our capacity to attend to and care for others.

With these increasing challenges to listening and meaningful human conversation, perhaps AA can be a beacon of light, persistently reminding us that the intimacy and growth that all humans crave is bound up with our readiness to lend our ear and our soul to the person next to us.

When I feel my energy and attention lagging and want to hand out advice and empty platitudes I sometimes turn to the words of educator and philosopher Parker Palmer, who writes eloquently about the value of listening and presence:

“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there.”

Being there is our readiness to listen to each other.


About the Author, Galen T.

Galen spent most of his career in the ministry, and in mental health and career counseling. He has published numerous articles as a career consultant. He is now an independent writer focusing on the application of personal narrative to addiction recovery and life generally. He has been sober since 1995 and is active in several of his local AA groups.

Artwork

by Jan A. and Doris A. 

Audio Story

The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from  Jasper, Georiga. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com 

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  1. Steve K April 18, 2017 at 12:39 am - Reply

    Great article Galen! Thankyou.

  2. Gerald April 17, 2017 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your article. I truly am not here at AA Beyond Belief to plug for ACA. It’s been coming up in my shares recently, but just coincidentally. I don’t have an ulterior motive here to plug for ACA. I actually don’t even attend any ACA meetings. Simply, I just happened to learn certain things in ACA that other AA’ers, I truly believe, do pick up in their individual AA experiences, but I didn’t.

    In ACA circles, they call that kind of listening that you’re talking about, which should always be our AA kind of listening too, right?, “validation” or “being validated.” In ACA they also employ the term PTSD to talk about that trauma that we come into the fellowship with, you know, post-traumatic stress disorder, the same label war veterans might receive. There’s a convention to follow, in their ACA step work, which is actually really, really different from our AA step work, and the main purpose of this convention is to validate our childhood traumatic life experiences – very different from the AA fourth step focus on how we hurt others as a direct result of our character defects. In ACA, it’s the other way around. They start with how you were hurt – traumatized in fact – back when you were defenseless, and then they show you that that’s where your defects come from. But instead of defects, they might call them “coping skills” or “childhood survival skills.” These are “skills” that got us through childhood, you know, safely – physically safely, psychologically safely – but these survival skills like being selfish, self-centered, & self-seeking for example, as helpful as they were in getting us through childhood, they’re not useful in adulthood. They are counter-productive in adulthood. They make us Adult Children, you know, adult in years but still children on the inside, in fact, wounded children on the inside, perhaps raging, wounded children 🙂 hence the wounded “inner child” that they talk about.

    That’s their way of writing the narrative of their lives, starting with busting through the delusion of “minimizing” their childhood trauma, which is the delusion that it wasn’t that bad: I got over it. It doesn’t affect me anymore.

    Really?

    No, it wasn’t that bad.

    How bad was it?

    Not that bad … just bad enough to make me want to kill myself, but it wasn’t that bad compared to other people’s. 🙂

    … I was lucky in where I landed in AA. The sponsor-sponsee relationship validated me. The group-newcomer relationship validated me. I learned from these people the difference between the healthy path in AA and, then, everything else that’s out there in AA. My first AA groups were a steps- & traditions-oriented AA fellowship. They taught that when you share you should always relate your sharing back to the solution contained in the AA program, by which they meant the BB & 12×12, perhaps not exclusively the BB & 12×12 but, you know, those principles like the destruction of self-centeredness, the leveling of our pride, the confession of our shortcomings, plus faith in & dependence on … well, for them it was God, right?, because these people were mostly believers & churchgoers, but for me, atheist that I remain, it continues to mean faith in & dependence on something other than my own great thinking, which is likely to be just a knee jerk reaction to life, in fact a PTSD reaction to life.

    And we all know that not every newcomer is lucky to get the kind of sponsorship that you’re talking about, where you listen instead of barking orders & managing the newcomer’s life down to the smallest details.

    My first sponsor didn’t tell me what to do, and that actually frustrated me at times 🙂 but he was helping me to grow up. You know, What’s the answer?! I need to know! 🙂 But really, what I was saying was Fix me! and that Fix me! attitude was an unhelpful childhood survival skill that I carried with me e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e. in life, such as in romantic relationships, as you can imagine, but in friendships too, just everything, everywhere. Alcohol, fix me!

    My sponsor told me, at the beginning of our relationship, that his job as a sponsor was simply to pass on the AA program (not to fix me), by which he meant he would teach me what it is and how to do it, and he would distinguish between the AA program and his personal experience with theAA program.

    And that’s a kind of humility. That’s putting “principles before personalities,” which is the spiritual significance of Tradition Twelve.

    Anywyas, I remember the day, fondly now, when he kicked me out of the nest saying that he didn’t have any more answers for me; it was up to me to work steps 10-12 on a daily basis as a way of life. And these are the attitudes that I bring into sharing & listening: no conformity, no hierarchy. Your particular spiritual experience, if you will, is between you and God, not between me, you, & God, not between you & your sponsor nor you, your sponsor, & the group. It’s between you and God, and for an atheist, which I remain today, 23 years later, these words “God” & “spiritual awakening” have taken on practical meaning for me as the result of working the AA program. The so-called religious conversion experience truly is available to people like me, and that’s part of my personal experience with the AA program.

    I feel validated when I share here at AA Beyond Belief. I share to fix me, not to fix you, but in the sicko AA groups & sicko sponsor-sponsee relationships out there, and there are lots and lots of them, unfortunately, they do have that turned around 180 degrees backwards, don’t they?

    Thanks!

    Gerald, alcoholic, Japan
     

  3. Reid B. April 17, 2017 at 9:23 am - Reply

    Bill’s meeting with Dr. Bob did indeed result in the eventual “institutionalization” of the principle of one drunk talking to another. It’s institutionalized in that we talk without interrupting each other in meetings. And we talk informally before and after in those very important gatherings. I definitely felt that I “belonged” in the fellowship because of the coffee and pie meetings after the Meetings.

    When Bill was standing in the Akron hotel lobby, he heard the conviviality of the people in the bar and he knew that was not a place he could go. The other end of the lobby had the church directory. And in an instant, he knew that what he needed was to talk to another drunk. It came to him apparently as a sudden insight.

    I believe that this is his “original thought” and it’s what actually made the fellowship. Other insights that Bill had, like the steps and traditions, are adapted from other sources, notably the Oxford Groups, one of which was the “home” of Ms. Sieberling there in Akron. The Oxford Groups were everywhere. They had a 6 step program which you can read about.

    The great scientist, Albert Einstein, said he had only one original thought in his whole life and that everything else was syntheses of other people’s work. (I like to think that I’m only one original thought behind the great Einstein!) And Bill’s original thought was this tremendous insight: in order for *me* to stay sober, I have to carry my message of hope, my experience, my strength (such as it is this day) to another sufferer.

    Gold!

     

     

    • RonB April 17, 2017 at 1:17 pm Reply

      Hi, Reid B.

      Your first three paragraphs hold a lot of truth, albeit I bet the 5 hour debate between two drunks, one with a huge hangover, was quite lively, with plenty of interruptions. The last paragraph is a worry, though. “I have to use ‘others’ to stay sober”!

      My introduction to AA was great and I was encouraged to visit other groups, in fact 90 meetings in 90 days. The second group brought me to an after meeting coffee with a nice gentleman, who told me that the only way to sobriety was the 12 steps and religion. He had sponsored (strange name, I prefer buddy) many people, it was his life. He scared me, and I almost quit AA that day! Fortunately I went to my first group, and an Irish lady gave me a kind lesson in assertiveness, (if only females could be male sponsors)! In time many have tried to be my sponsor. Most are lonely and without purpose in life, so they became alcoholics, some admitted to it. Sponsorship gives purpose and company, so yes it can keep people sober, but at what expense? Yes, it can help some, but to others it is interference rather than help, and can be counter-productive. The real motivation is ‘self’, to keep sober, and not the welfare of others. I’m sorry if I have misinterpreted your words or intent, but I really do think that keeping sober by using vulnerable others, is potentially damaging.

      • Reid B. April 18, 2017 at 6:22 am Reply

        *Use* others? How about interact with others? What does “belonging” to a group mean? That you use them?

        Weird.

        • RonB April 18, 2017 at 8:23 pm Reply

          I believe that my point is reasonably made, but to anser your quesions! If one has a headache one may ‘use’ a painkiller to relieve the pain, perhaps one may ‘interact’ with the drug, but it’s simply a choice of words. With both words the goal is relief to the sufferer, that being you in this instance! Belonging to a group is to be a memnber of a group, so all AA members, belong to the group as a whole. This, however, may be reduced to individual AA groups, if desired, as one’s ‘home group’ is autonomous. One may also consider themselves to ‘belong’ or to be a member of this forum, and have signed up to be so. I ‘use’ AA groups to help me keep sober, and to allow myself the opportunity of experiencing joy should I be able to help another person without interference, listening to them is very important. I don’t feel this is weird in the least. I hope this helps.

  4. Phil G April 16, 2017 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    When I was maybe a year or so sober, it became apparent that our 30 year marriage had not recovered proportionately. We were eventually channeled by a marriage counselor into a program specifically for couples recovering from any sort of marital trauma. The ‘cure’ was writing, listening, and sharing. We would individually write about various topics, read it to our partner, who would then regurgitate back what was heard. We took turns, and a discussion followed. There were strict rules on how this process was conducted, and it was often extremely painful, much like a 4th and 5th step. In fact, I consider this our marriage inventory, something that just didn’t happen when we worked the steps in our separate programs, which lacked essential communication with each other.

    Thanks for the timely article. Just celebrated our 40th anniversary, and I needed a reminder to keep listening, as hard as it might be at times.

  5. Thomas B. April 16, 2017 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    Indeed, a most moving and informative article, Galen — Thank you !~!~!

    Thanks especially for your citing “expert authorities” who validate that what Dr.  Bob and Bill W. mutually experienced in the small room of the Seiberling Estate Gatehouse is the human power that occurs whenever one alcohol addict shares with another alcohol addict  their stories. Therein lies the healing dynamic for both within AA.

    I’ve been privileged to sit within that tiny Gatehouse room on several occasions. For me, it’s perhaps the most sacred place of many I’ve visited throughout the planet.

    • Daniel April 16, 2017 at 3:15 pm Reply

      Galen thank you so much for your share.one of my aspirations is to become a great listener,I’m still working on it.

      For me the single most important tool in AA is sponsorship.There is a saying in the program if you sponsor people you will never need a mirror! I always see myself when a sponsee shares with me a challenge or problem.Im not there to get anybody sober,to have them conform,to give advice I am there to listen.I think what an experienced sponsor has is that they ask important questions,the sponsees almost always has the answer and then it is up to them to do the right thing.

    • Thomas B. April 16, 2017 at 3:04 pm Reply

      Oh yes, Jan and Doris, the artwork is marvelous — I especially liked the subtle touch of the book between the two alcohol addicts in the first illustration being Joe C’s Beyond Belief: Musings for 12 Step Life !~!~!

      • Doris A April 16, 2017 at 5:55 pm Reply

        Thanks Thomas. I love collaborating with Jan, and also like the subtly of the lead photo. She usually sends me a number of photos to work with, one included you from a few years ago. I’ll send it to you.

  6. John S April 16, 2017 at 11:00 am - Reply

    I really liked this article and the comments. It blows me away how much I learn here. Whatever I think about the program, the fellowship and my recovery continues to evolve and I’m often surprised at the direction I go.

    Thank you Galen and thank you to everyone who posts here. This is a valuable resource and I feel fortunate to have access to such a wide array of experience.

  7. Joe C. April 16, 2017 at 10:18 am - Reply

    I echo others who have said, in so many words, that great truth is not complicated or out of reach; it is simple, intuitive and accessible.  Thanks for this.

    What rigid, convoluted doctrine does time and again is distract from this simple truth and make hierarchies of clay-footed experts, all based on “a world of possibility” bullshit. The reason big book fanaticism is popular is because it creates artificial experts. You don’t have experts when AA is as simple as two people being vulnerable with each other. Sharing requires no memorization or formula or chain of command. When we get real, the idea of my sponsor’s, sponsor’s sponsor is so clearly a false authority. 30 years of sobriety is not authority; quoting “How It Works” from memory is not authority.

    AA isn’t the only society that props up false idols, The Secret followers, Forum, followers and some meditation gurus do it, too. In professional counselling, there is this system called “motivational interviewing” which there are courses and continuing education credits for. It seems so nuanced and easy to fuck up. I’m sure it’s great but we’re better off being compassionate and letting people be heard than to follow someone else’s system awkwardly.

    Dr. Bob didn’t stay sober from that first encounter but Bill did. Bill was no expert he had no formula. He led with his vulnerability – he was afraid he wound drink if he couldn’t find another drunk to talk to. They needed each other and the olive branch Bill offered was, what I think was a genuine sincerity and his own imperfections.

    mayI ad that once again, the artwork, the audio and the loving touched of this blog post continue to amaze me.

     

     

  8. Heather B. April 16, 2017 at 9:47 am - Reply

    Thank you for mentioning “the intentional cultivation of compassion for people I don’t like”. Easier said than done, to be sure, but a game changer nonetheless.

  9. Len Robichaud April 16, 2017 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Thanks Galen. “Pain shared is pain divided” a quote from Michael Pritchard.

    When we truly listen to others, healing begins.

  10. Lance B. April 16, 2017 at 8:39 am - Reply

    Very nice reminder Galen.  Thank you.

  11. bob k April 16, 2017 at 7:37 am - Reply

    WOW!! This is surely one of the very best essays ever to appear on this site, both for content, and for style. My ultimate compliment in a circumstance like this is “I wish I had written this.” “I wish I had written this.”

    I’m a fan of sorting through the big book for the many hidden gems, rather than dismissing it in its entirety. More than once, we are told what lies at the core of AA’s effectiveness. It is neither prayer nor the intervention of the Guardian(s) of the Galaxy.

    PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.” (P. 89) “…when all other measure failed, work with another alcoholic would save the day. Many times I have gone to my old hospital in despair. On talking to a man there, I would be amazingly lifted up and set on my feet. It is a design for living that works in rough going.” (P. 15)

    One more to complete the showing off – “…it is well to let him go as far as he like in helping other alcoholics. During those first days of convalescence, this will do more to insure his sobriety than anything else.” (P. 129)

    In DOCTOR BOB’S NIGHTMARE, the Akron physician describes the reason for the tremendous impact of the seminal meeting with Bill Wilson. “Of far more importance was the fact that he was the first living human with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience. In other words, he talked my language. He knew all the answers, and certainly not because he had picked them up in his reading.” Identification and storytelling.

    In a variety of places, beneath what many of us see as gobbledygook, it is clear that helping others is the very core of AA spirituality. I enjoyed the psychology references – I have two degrees on the subject. Nevertheless, my late mother used to tell her friends that her oldest son was going to become an astronaut. “He’s at the University of Toronto taking up space.” 😉

     

     

  12. Andy McIntosh April 16, 2017 at 6:22 am - Reply

    Hi Galen, thank-you for taking the time to post and share with us!

    My first real sponsor said to me “that all my answers were inside me”. Your article elaborates in detail exactly that:-)

  13. Clifford Edwards April 16, 2017 at 6:01 am - Reply

    I fully agree that the narrative helps us come to terms with who we’ve been and also forges a cast for who we can become. There is also the temptation to get lost in our story, so we “become” a good or bad 12 stepper. There is also a chance here to go past that and claim our true identity, which is not solely based on what we do or the stories we tell.  Identity is a tough nut to crack yet it seems all we can really do is help pick and peel away at the kernel and see what emerges. To merge our wills with that, which always seems to walk hand in hand with service, is a noble path.

    Nice writing Galen, thank you.

    clifford edwards

    co founder

    banyantree21.com

  14. RonB April 16, 2017 at 5:44 am - Reply

    Nice write-up, and a lot of truth. The listening versus fixing part is well shown in a youtube short clip called ‘not about the nail’.

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