Chapter 5: Checking in
In this hectic world, we often feel like no one truly listens to us. Our listeners rarely give us careful, full attention. No one teaches us to listen deeply, and it’s not something we know to practice on our own. Checking in allows us to experience the power of listening and truly being heard.1
Here’s how checking in works. You sit down in a circle with one or more others. A rough circle is fine, as long as everyone can see and hear everyone else. Someone chooses to begin and starts talking. While it’s their turn to talk, it’s your turn to listen. All you need to do is listen. When you feel the urge to speak, reply, argue, or help, let it go. This is not the time for that; this is the time to listen. Avoid little acknowledgment noises like “Mm-hmm,” or “Yeah.” Those are appropriate for a conversation, but checking in is something different. Silence makes it much easier to listen.
Inner silence is important, too. Listen with your full attention. Try not to get distracted or anxious about what you’re going to say when it’s your turn. There’s no need to plan ahead; it’s much more powerful and effective if your words come from your heart in the now. When it’s your turn, you won’t be making a speech or trying to impress anyone.
While it’s your turn to listen, focus 100% of your attention on the speaker. Look into the speaker’s eyes. Hear the words they say. Feel the emotions they express. Share the experience of their life as they communicate with you. You know you’re being a good listener when you have no attention to spare for judging, coming up with a reply, or thinking about what you’ll say on your turn. Offer them the gift of truly being heard, and in turn they will offer this gift to you as well.
Nonverbal feedback while listening is fine as long as it’s not distracting to the speaker. Our favorite way to give nonverbal feedback is called “twinkling.” Twinkling is a gesture made by wiggling the fingers of both hands, like you’re playing random notes on a piano but with your fingers fully outstretched. It communicates “I agree,” or “I feel that way too.” Twinkling is a good way to let the speaker know that you are sharing or relating to their experience without verbally interrupting their flow. If twinkling feels unnatural or uncomfortable to you, you can simply nod in agreement.
When it’s your turn to check in, you can talk about whatever thoughts or emotions happen to pass through you at that moment. You can talk about the events of your day, you can let off steam about things that are bothering you, or you can just be silent for a little while. No one will interrupt you. No one will argue with you or tell you you’re not allowed to think or feel that way. No one will jump in to give you advice or to tell you about a time they felt like that too. Everyone will simply listen to you with their full attention. When you’re finished, say “check,” and then it’s the next person’s turn. Each person in the circle gets a chance to check in.
Kevin’s Example: Triad Check-In Time
Kevin and his partners Molly and Heather are sitting together on the couch. It’s been a long day, and he’s feeling grateful for this time of relaxing and unwinding. When Molly asks for a check-in, he initially feels a rush of stage fright and fear of what might surface, but he reminds himself that he will only say what he wants to say. He can even simply say “check” if he wants to say nothing, with no repercussion. This positive, voluntary view of things calms his nerves, and he nods.
Molly goes first. She talks about her day, the frustrations of her job, some of the deeper thoughts she’s been pondering, and a few delightful random things that happened to be on her mind, like the particularly sharp flavor of the cheese she ate at lunch and a plot twist in a book she read two years ago. Kevin and Heather listen. They hear her words, the tone of her voice, how it conveys her energy level and her emotions. They see the enthusiasm in her face and her posture as she speaks of a new project at work that excites her. When she finishes with a contented “check,” Kevin smiles, noting how relaxed he’s become. Molly smiles too. She feels heard, known, and closer to her partners than before.
Heather feels like going last, so Kevin takes his turn. He always starts with how he’s currently feeling, because that’s usually what is at the front of his mind, so he talks about feeling relaxed and happy. He mentions being hungry and Molly twinkles in agreement. Then he talks about some of the things that have been going through his head for the past few days. An emotional issue comes up; he realizes his feelings were hurt during an interaction with Molly earlier in the day. He shares his feelings and thoughts, noting that he doesn’t know more yet and is still processing. As he continues, he finds his mind going down paths where daily life rarely takes it, and ends up saying things he hadn’t realized were on his mind before. All the while, Kevin feels safe, knowing that he is being heard and seen but not judged. He eventually runs out of things to say. He feels lighter, like a burden has been lifted. He finishes with “check!”
His partners are looking at him, smiling. It’s Heather’s turn now, so she begins talking. Once again, the others listen. Heather talks about how her feet hurt from all the dancing she’s done recently. She mentions a game she played with her friends earlier, how much fun she had, and how happy it made her to win. She talks about making spaghetti for dinner. Nothing serious or emotional surfaces for her, but she enjoys the opportunity to talk about her day uninterrupted.
When the check-in is over, they will eat dinner. They’ll go about their evening as they normally would, but with a greater clarity and understanding of each other’s feelings and mental space. This process will enrich their lives together. They will know each other better and feel more connected to one another.
But for now, they simply listen.
Checking in might feel uncomfortable at first. When it’s your turn, you may feel stage fright, like you’re on the spot. Sometimes people give an impromptu speech rather than actually checking in. You’ll get more out of a check-in if you are sharing rather than performing. We suggest starting with people you’re comfortable with so you can work through this fear. Also, checking in feels much more natural after some practice. Once you do it a few times, it will become a new pattern of communication, just like conversation is a pattern of communication. In fact, conversation is most people’s only pattern of communication, so it can be tough to break out of it. Give yourself time and take it easy. It’s worth it.
A good way to make checking an even safer space is to agree on the following: everyone will explicitly ask for permission to bring up a subject mentioned in the check-in, and it’s completely okay for the person who first brought it up to decline. This applies to both the remainder of the check-in process and afterwards, when normal conversation has resumed. This agreement can help everyone feel even more comfortable bringing up touchy subjects, because it keeps the check-in from becoming a conversation. Perhaps you’re not ready for a full-on conversation or argument about a certain topic, but you’d like to let the other person know your half-formed thoughts and feelings. This way, even if you know your words might trigger difficult emotions for those listening, it’s still safe to share them because you know no one will attack you. Your check-in partners are listening to you and hearing you, not judging you or attacking you.
Consider it as the listener, too: wouldn’t you rather hear what’s going on in the other person’s head and heart, even if they’re not yet ready to engage in conversation about it? Wouldn’t that increase your understanding of them and decrease your chance of being blindsided by something you didn’t know was on their mind? Checking in is a valuable tool to keep people in touch with each other.
Checking in needn’t be reserved for difficult issues; you may wish to make it a daily or weekly practice with your partner. We’ve found that this improves our communication and our connection. Even in a regularly scheduled check-in, there’s no pressure to say anything if you’re not ready, don’t have anything to say, or are simply not in the mood. You can simply say “check” as the entirety of your turn.
Checking in helps you get in touch with yourself, too! We find that when we check in with each other, especially if we take our time, we discover things inside us that even we didn’t know. Checking in is a gift to everyone involved and is a powerful and effective way to create a safe space to share your thoughts and feelings.
1. We learned this from the Reclaiming tradition of neopaganism, who in turn learned it from a practice in group therapy and consensus process.