Duchesses and Flower Girls

June 7, 2021

Do you find that your relationships at work or in your family are less than ideal? Perhaps characterized by conflict, or worse – distant and cut off – as though people have stopped trying to bridge the gap with you, they’ve just given up? We can never change other people, only ourselves, so it may be a good idea to quickly do a personal check-in with regard to how we are relating to other people. Basically, it’s in our attitude to others, which shows up very, very strongly in the quality of our listening.

There are two kinds of listening, one of which alienates others, and the other, which deepens our bonds of co-operation and understanding.

The first is competitive listening. We pretend to pay attention while we wait for an opening to promote our own point of view, without really caring about the view of the other person. We listen for weak points in their argument where we can shoot them down, or formulate our points of rebuttal even while they are speaking. Sometimes we even plan that crushing comeback. We are in it to win it.

The second is active listening. Here, we genuinely want to understand what the other person is thinking, feeling and wanting. We check that we have understood both the meaning of their words but, importantly, also the feelings and any meaning below the words. We check out that we have correctly understood them, by reflecting back to them what we understood them to say. Perhaps we didn’t understand accurately and they can then correct us and we can recalibrate our understanding.

When people feel genuinely heard, this deepens the quality of their relationship with us, and builds bridges.

It comes down to whether we view the other as our adversary, our inferior, or someone equally worthy of respect. When people feel respected by us, they become our allies. We should treat all people well, irrespective of their status relative to ours. Here is a beautiful illustration of the value of respectful human interaction from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, made into the famous film, My Fair Lady.

LIZA [stopping her work for a moment] Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimpole Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me. [She resumes her stitching]. And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things about standing up and taking off your hat and opening door—
PICKERING. Oh, that was nothing.

LIZA. Yes: things that shewed you thought and felt about me as if I were something better than a scullery-maid; though of course I know you would have been just the same to a scullery-maid if she had been let in the drawing-room. You never took off your boots in the dining room when I was there.

PICKERING. You mustn’t mind that. Higgins takes off his boots all over the place.

LIZA. I know. I am not blaming him. It is his way, isn’t it? But it made such a difference to me that you didn’t do it. You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.

Eliza goes on famously to observe that Pickering treats flower girls just as he would a Duchess. So – if your relationships are strained, do a check-in. Are you treating the people around you like duchesses or like flower girls? It will be reflected in the quality of your listening.

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