How To Listen To A Woman (Like Dylan Farrow)

A few days ago the writer, Luke O’Neil, employing typically well-placed emphasis, tweeted some pithy advice for all modern men:

For countless reasons men, and by extension, our culture, find it difficult to listen to women. Many would argue there’s no difference between listening to a woman or a man. And I would agree. It’s a fairly simple process when you break it down:

  • Determine what she is saying.
  • Confirm you heard her correctly.
  • Consider her words/ Reflect on their meaning.
  • Allow them to affect your experience.

That’s it. That’s all it takes to listen to a woman (or a man). Yet, simple as that sounds, we still have a difficult time listening to women.

I grew up in a house of women. And for me, listening to women eventually became as familiar as a second or third language. Clearly it wasn’t my first language but I could understand them if I took the time to listen. And by understand I mean the context and subtext of their words, the referenced history wrapped up in their comment, the implications and expectations. I found there were tiny braided worlds of meaning beaded like embroidery on each word a woman said. Like, sometimes I had to stop and think about what was meant. Other times I’d have to translate or interpret as best I could what a woman in my family was saying. Over the years all those experiences provided me a basic fluency. And now, I thoroughly enjoy listening to women. To my ears listening to a woman is different than listening to a man. Not that it’s more difficult, it’s just different. (You may not agree … that’s cool. You don’t need to agree.)

Often when men converse it becomes a Darwinian struggle to be heard. Participants interject as a natural part of the exchange. One jumps into a conversation. Listening is considered something to be earned by being an expert, or funny, or smart, or just the loudest, but few men expect to be heard, they must convince others to listen to them.

Whereas, when one woman listens to another woman there is a great deal of conversational overlap, when it’s a group of women they might all talk over one another, and this might look similar to how men interject; but you’ll notice, everyone keeps listening to each other when it’s a group of women. Four women can be talking to each other all at once, and yet, they will hear what all is said. That’s a skill I had to work hard to learn. Although they seemingly interrupt each other, there are few, if any, blunt force interjections. There are fewer sudden insertions of opinion that invalidate whoever was talking. Women don’t seem to do that as much, or at least not the same as men.

For men, when listening to a woman, it helps if you do like Luke O’Neil suggested and you shut the fuck up and don’t interject, offer no interruptions, just shut up and listen. Men need to get out of the way and listen because we tend to use different conversational rhythms — we like to interject. It’s part of how we communicate with each other. Whether it’s instinct or learned behavior, the impulse comes from a good place. We think we’re problem solvers. We’re fixing the conversation. We’re correcting bullshit someone else said. We think we’re helping. And that’s our doom right there. We tend to focus on a “problem.”

Often when a man listens to a woman, as soon as he hears her mention one, he wants to help her fix “her problem” (whether she’s aware she has a problem or not). Consequently, a man will interrupt a woman to give his opinion, to help clarify her thinking, or he may offer his solution to her problem, or what he feels is a better tactic, a new strategy, a handy tool, anything to fix or improve her problem, whatever it is. For obvious reasons, women don’t often appreciate this approach to their problems.

Culturally speaking, a woman of the western world tends to speak as a way to convey meaning, to establish and maintain community, solidarity and for lack of a better word, reinforce sisterhood; she seeks affirmation, or confirmation of facts, or to find solace in a quiet confession, to think out loud, to hear how she feels, to confide, to blow steam, in a sense, to express and calibrate her inner reality and sometimes do so from a place of vulnerability. However, her vulnerability should never be mistaken for weakness. Nor is it a cry for help. This can be confusing for a lot of men. It has been for me.

Although I was raised in a house of women, I still process the world with a guy’s head. I see problems and want to fix things. This cultural gender bias causes heaps of trouble. But I wouldn’t say men should abstain from their desire to fix things and improve situations. Men just need to learn when is the right time and place — this means, especially, if the problem isn’t ours, we must wait until someone asks for our opinion.

We must learn how to wait for someone to request our help. We have to stand still and not shoot from the hip because that’s how we’re comfortable speaking. We have to recognize we’re not giving the world a gift every time we announce what we’re thinking. This shift in perspective will help us stop constantly interjecting and inserting our values where they were never invited. Men seem to forget that the goal in listening is to listen. Here are some refresher bullet points:

  • Keep reminding yourself that you don’t need to improve anything
  • Remember, you don’t need to express your view (unless asked)
  • She doesn’t need you to clarify anything for her (unless asked)
  • You know what you think — listen to figure out what she’s thinking
  • Seek to better understand her viewpoint before sharing yours
  • Listening should require few if any words on your part

When you listen to a woman with the fullness of your attention, her experiences will shape yours. And this is where you benefit. Every experience you share with others enriches both of you. The more you listen to any one woman, the more deeply you will listen to all the women in your world and the better your life will be. Trust me on that.

A successful habit to employ when listening to a woman is to think about what she’s saying, and as you consider her words, ask yourself if her story sounds like one you’ve heard before, listen for if it sounds like an experience shared by other women. However, this comes with a warning: you may not like what you hear.

One of the great indictments against our culture is the number of sad and horrifying stories women can tell you. This is of course why it’s important you listen to a woman. It’s the best way for a man to begin to help fix or improve her situation. One of the key messages of listening to someone is that you let them know they matter, that they’re important. Now, sometimes listening to a woman can be dreadfully painful. It can redefine your life. But those may be the most important times to listen to a woman.

There were a few moral questions raised by the recent release of Dylan Farrow’s open letter account of her sexual abuse at the hands of Woody Allen. The questions center on how we listen to her. I noticed a pattern emerge as I asked some people I know and respect if they’d read her open letter yet. This was the gist of our conversations:

Friend: No, haven’t read Dylan Farrow’s letter yet … But have you read the one in the Daily Beast?

Me: The one written by his biographer dude — the one who defended Woody?

Friend: Yes, that guy was there at the time. He says some shit you might wanna read before you go hog wild on Woody after just listening to her allegations.

Me: Are you planning on reading her letter?

Friend: Yeah, maybe… but I don’t know if I want to read all that. I don’t want to think of Woody like that – And I wasn’t there.

Me: No one was there, but her and him. We only have her account and his – well, we have no account from him.

Friend: Yeah, that’s why you have to read the other letter.

The important point to make is my friends and I are/were all men and all Woody Allen fans, and our interest was more than that of the casual observer or average American. And what wasn’t said aloud in our exchange, but what we were all puzzling over were the most interesting questions of all.

If it’s true and Woody Allen is a child molester, can I still enjoy his films and my memories of his films?

If I can find a way to still enjoy them, how do I defend that and remain a good person?

If it’s true and Woody Allen is a child molester, and I can’t enjoy his films, who do I blame?

What if I just don’t read the letter? Can I continue to enjoy his films?

That last one sounds like the scrambling logic of a junkie, rationalizing one more hit. The most troubling aspect of those exchanges with my friends was the fact these people, whom I like and respect and are typically very astute members of the culture, cast a light on our culture’s difficulty listening to women:

They were suggesting I listen to A man — one of Woody Allen’s friends — and consider his words and his account with equal weight and value as the victim of the sexual abuse.

We all know that dude wasn’t there. Why should anyone listen to him? And some are unlikely to read her open letter because of his words. That dude has interjected at a cultural level. Some of my friends were satisfied with the biographer’s defense of Woody Allen rather than listen to the victim. That’s insane!

If you ever wondered what it looks like — there it is — that’s the shadow of rape culture darkening the proceedings. And it’s a perfect example of the sort of trouble we have with listening to women.

Even though Woody Allen has always been my artistic hero, some one I admired, and so forth, I decided to read the letter of his accuser. By halfway done, certain details had seared into my memory. Dylan Farrow’s words were so freighted with pain they were scarring me with the emotional impact of her story. But listen to me go on. It’s not about my reaction. This moment is about Dylan Farrow and how we choose to listen to her.

With each of her words I could feel Woody Allen slipping away from me. All of my positive memories of him were growing obscured by Dylan Farrow’s words. And even though her words, as they stacked up like bricks, meant I’d lose my connection to him, I listened to her. I kept reading. A wall separating me from many happy parts of my past might be made of her words, and it may be her account that severed my easy and happy connection to Woody Allen and his artworks, but it was his actions that did the damage.

I would never be so emotionally sloppy as to somehow blame Dylan Farrow for changing my relationship to Woody Allen films. Woody Allen ruined his movies. I hold no resentment against Dylan Farrow despite all the years of joy and many happy memories that her words cost me. But see, how that sounds? It’s ultra-critical we notice such language. Not only do we need to actively listen to women but we also must listen to ourselves and how we think and talk about women. As I listen to Dylan’s words – I must remember her words cost me nothing, they revealed his crimes. It’s too easy to focus on her words and hear what they mean for us, and this causes our attention to wander away from where they should be focused: Woody Allen’s actions. Make this more about him and less about her. The damage was done by Woody Allen.

If you’re still having trouble listening to what she has to say, or if you’re of the opinion there are two sides to every story, unfortunately, we can’t turn to Woody Allen. He’s yet to comment. However, since his artwork and its cultural value have already entered the discussion, you could also consider other bits of his artwork and add them to the discussion, such as this dialog from a recently produced play of his that the writer, Emily Nussbaum, tweeted:

Like you, I’m unburdened with the execution of justice. I don’t have to treat Woody Allen as innocent until proven guilty. And neither do you. The only thing we need to do is listen to Dylan Farrow.

I had a damn hard time reading Dylan Farrow’s account. As I read it, listening to her recount her abuse, I had an even harder time considering her words and not believing her. But if I had any remaining doubts, that scene from Woody Allen’s play would surely remove them. And as you look back over all his work you’ll find plenty of disturbing references to little girls. Joe Coscarelli collected some here.

I’m not indicting Woody Allen with this dialog from his play or many other instances of similar jokes. Rather than ask if one can accurately detect the subconscious in punchlines, I’m suggesting there’s little rational ground to stand on and argue that Dylan Farrow is a liar; which is what you do if you choose to believe Woody Allen and his biographer friend, Robert B. Weide. It’s a zero-sum scenario. Either she’s lying or he is. Since none of us were there, we have to choose who to believe. All we have is their word. We have to listen to them and decide. How you decide, that’s on you. But first we have to listen to her.

Listening to a woman isn’t always easy. Sometimes it will cost you, or hurt you, embarrass or pain you; but if you want to help her the best thing you can do is listen. With so many people making it a priority to listen to this one woman’s account of her sexual abuse, with so many advocating that others read and share Dylan Farrow’s open letter, it’s showing victims of abuse their story matters, too. It’s showing them that perhaps folks would listen to them, too. That’s the power of listening to one woman.

How do you listen to a woman? TC Mark

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