How to be a better listener: Lessons from the Interruption Queen

My son met a Ukrainian girl over the summer, and after telling me it was a summer fling because she barely speaks English, he started learning Russian and seeing her all the time. The relationship became a race – could she learn English before he learned Russian. Her school is in an enclave of all Russian and Ukrainian kids who escaped the war, so she is not learning English as fast as you’d expect.

Actively integrate various types of information.

She told him he should be in high school instead of homeschooling. I didn’t say to her, “The only reason he learned Russian in six months is because he doesn’t go to school.”

I agreed to be her “experiential learning mentor” and signed on a dotted line that she’s my intern. My son warned me not to interrupt and talk over her: “She’s not your coaching client!”

The internship became me listening to her stories. Her city was one of the first to be bombed by Russia and in one day all but one of her friends died. She was one of the only Ukrainians able to take a train to Poland: only women with children so someone gave her a child to hold.

Repeat back to the person what they say. In their words, not yours.

Of course I try to squash my penchant for confrontation and just listen. But we talk for hours and one day I point out that the she always says “I’m European.” But the only people in the world who say that are Ukrainian. Europeans identify themselves by their country.

The girlfriend says Ukrainians have “a different sense of their own country” because they define themselves only in terms of not Russia. She said the train was stuck for more than a day because the tracks were blown up, but almost no one talked because they didn’t want to speak Russian but most didn’t know Ukrainian.

While the person is talking do not rehearse what you’ll say next.

While she is studying for finals, my son signs up for extra sessions with the Russian tutor. The Russian tutor teaches my son the word borscht and says, “Do you know that word?”

My son says, “Yes! I’ve had borscht. It’s a Ukrainian beet soup.”

The tutor says, “No. It’s a Russian soup.”

My son laughs. I do not tell him to get a new tutor.

While the girlfriend does homework all weekend, my son finds a Russian book that teaches odd grammar by way of propaganda posters. The girlfriend tells him to get a regular grammar book. I do not say the book is genius.

Make time and space that is free of distractions.

I make tea and the girlfriend and I sit at the kitchen table.  She tells me that Poland did not want Ukrainians to stay unless they were willing to do the job Polish people cannot: talk to old people in nursing homes who only speak Russian. The girlfriend went to Latvia to go to school but the school would not let her speak Russian. She didn’t know Latvian so at the end of each lesson she’d ask a kid next to her to write down the homework. At home she used google to translate the Latvian to Russian so she could do the homework, then she’d translate her Russian back to Latvian and turn in the homework. She got straight A’s.

Convey interest and comprehension so they’ll continue sharing information.

My son cooks her meals to quell her anxiety that he is not learning enough as a homeschooler. She does her homework in bed and he finds things to do so he can be next to her. He finds He tells her boyfriend and girlfriend were not widely used until the 1990s. It’s hard to charm her with language: in her mind the five languages she speaks are souvenirs of war.

While she’s in school he shows me slopes of word usage to see how words are invented. We find that the word dad didn’t get real traction until millenniels.

I tell him girlfriend and boyfriend are probably the result of gen x not being parented. And dad is a result of parents spending more time with kids.

My son tells me we don’t have to turn everything into me giving a lesson.  Which brings us back to the girlfriend.

They break up before spring break. I tell myself it was a good experience for him to see how much time kids waste in school.

He tells me, “It was a good experience because I got to see you try hard to be a good listener.”





10 replies
  1. Sarah Cosentino
    Sarah Cosentino says:

    Dear Penelope, I am SO happy your tests came back negative, and I am so happy you are still writing. I can relate to so much you write about that’s it’s both funny and relieving X”D. Plus I get an early rehearsal on how to deal with children who are growing up, all the frustration but also the tiny victories. Thank you for just being you.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Penelope, I’m glad that your diagnosis wasn’t cancer. I prayed that it wasn’t. My mom was diagnosed with cancer over three decades ago. She did all the treatments, it went into remission, and then it came back with a vengeance. The doctors did everything they could and she fought it as hard as she could but she passed away as a result of it. That’s all I want to say here about it other than it was the most helpless feeling. Some things are out of our control so we just have to do the best we can.
    Also, I’m glad you’re back to writing more frequently. I will tell you I’m a good listener. In fact, I once had a salesman tell me I was a good listener while we were having lunch. I don’t know why I can still remember that or why he said it but it made an impression. Maybe that was part of his sales pitch or I wasn’t talking much that day. Flattery will get you everywhere as they say.
    There’s something else I’d like to note that I don’t think I’ve mentioned on this blog. It’s the strangest thing sometimes when I’m reading your posts. I read through to the end and then I find myself reading from the end back to the beginning to get the full gist of what you’re conveying to us. Maybe it’s just me and maybe I do it more often than not with other articles too. Am I the only one who does this?

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Mark, I’m really sorry to hear about your mom. I missed you when you were going through that period — I can’t tell what’s going on in everyone’s lives, but I can tell when a regular commenter disappears for a bit. And I’m always concerned; we’ve been having a conversation here too long to not feel like friends.

      So I’m happy to see your back. And, as always, I appreciate your comment. You have been a good listener for a long time for me.


  3. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    As for conversation, today on his daily blog Seth Godin said, “If you’re not willing to consider that you’re wrong then, in the words of a Dan Dennet, you’re a spectator, not a participant.”

    Also, a few years back an advisor for startup teams, Paul Graham, noticed that the successful teams would listen to his advice alertly, but the non successful had a glazed look, as though they were running everything they heard through a kind of filter because they had already decided in advance.

    For my part, as I am listening, not only do I refuse to think of what I will reply, I also refuse to judge or evaluate, not until the other person has come to a “period” also known as a full stop. Of course, if a person or group doesn’t respect me, or the conversation, enough to give me time to think after the full stop, then that tells me something about them.

  4. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    For Mark W, yes I too sometimes read again from the bottom, more often I read again from the top. For reading from the top I find, perhaps because I am more relaxed about “getting it,” that it is even funnier the second time around. I guess it’s funnier partly because I can see the whole structure the second time and where stuff fits.

    Yes, the first time through I only read like I hear, one paragraph (or sentence) at a time.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Sean, I loved hearing how you read. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I read. I like reading my posts out loud to a friend because I don’t know what’s funny until I hear when someone laughs.

      I have also been thinking about how I read books. I first read in huge chunks — to get a picture in my head of how the text looks all together. Then, if I like the picture, I read the whole thing. I think this is why I like short writing — to see the picture all at once. I wonder if the act of reading something twice is similar to that — getting one picture of the piece then reading to get another.



  5. Claudia
    Claudia says:

    It’s so bizarre how our worlds parallel. My son (your sons age ) too has a girlfriend from Ukraine. However, she speaks Ukrainian, Russian, polish and English. I’ve been getting to know her as well. My mother is from Poland (escaped in the 60s communism) both my mother and the girlfriend refer to themselves as “Eastern European “. We’re in Canada, and the girlfriend is going to university here. Some of your son’s friends story doesn’t seem right to me?

  6. Grace
    Grace says:

    I live in Poland right now. Ukrainians can attend school here and work any job they qualify for. It is not limited to menial jobs. Lots of my friends hosted Ukrainian families when the war started. Ukrainians receive financial aid. Some of the girlfriend stories seem like fiction…

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      It’s interesting seeing the response from Grace and Claudia. And Grace I really appreciate hearing from you in Poland!

      I think it’s possible that I got the story wrong. I think it’s also possible that her story is different because she left before there was anything official set up for Ukrainians leaving. I don’t really know, honestly.



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