We’ve all been there, on both sides of the situation: We’re sharing a story about our experience, and the next thing we know, our conversation partner has turned the conversation back to themselves (“Oh! That happened to me too. Here’s what happened...”).
When we’re the person who was trying to share a moment with another, and now sees themselves pushed aside so the other person can be the one in the spotlight, it can be frustrating.
Recently I’ve been trying to be more aware of that tendency in myself and to engage with the other person by asking questions about their experience rather than by comparing a similar story of my own. This sometimes works, but sometimes doesn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like the other person really wants to engage in a conversation: to actually converse. And many times, once I stop asking questions of the other person, there’s only silence. They don’t ask me questions in return.
Back when I was dating a lot, I was very confused to find out that most of the people I went out with were not in any way interested in getting to know me. My dating partners often never bothered to ask me questions about myself, and would instead talk, and talk, and talk some more about themselves, encouraged by my questions of them and my attempts to indicate that I was listening and interested. Many times, I would come away from a date having barely said a word, except polite little noises.
Needless to say, I didn’t go on more dates with people who were terrible listeners.
I’ve realized recently that the people I feel closest to are the ones who not only have things to say, but also know how to stop talking and listen. Our conversations feel balanced, like we both get time to speak and we both get time to listen. We get to both see and be seen.
I’ve been watching the political climate recently, especially on social media where political conversations tend to be blustery and bombastic with very little real listening. I’ve been impressed with friends who have sincerely asked people with different political views to engage with them in honest and polite conversation, with the aim of understanding their viewpoints. I’ve also been very impressed with groups that I’ve learned about that aim to facilitate conversations and connection between historically conflicted groups, such as the Israelis and Palestinians
I think we need this in the U.S. - and many other countries - today, to combat the divisive political climate.
But I have not reached out in this way to people I disagree with, and when I ask myself why, the answer I get is: It’s scary!
Why is listening scary and how can we all get better at listening?
My completely unscientific theory is that true deep listening is scary because it’s intimate and makes us vulnerable to our worldviews (and thus our egos) being challenged. In order to truly listen, we have to let go of the armor of sometimes long-held and cherished beliefs and opinions and let in the idea that someone else has a different experience than we do.
Real listening means that we open our hearts and our minds at the same time.
To this end, I’ve been trying recently to rein in my tendency to be argumentative, to insert my opinions into a conversation merely because I have them. It seems to be a desire I have to be right. Or smart. Or both.
Why do we need to insert ourselves in conversations? I suspect it’s a way for us to mark our intellectual territory, to be seen. And it’s natural to want to be seen. But what about seeing others? I wonder if more of us could make this a priority as well.
It seems especially important these days, when a group of people who felt (rightly or wrongly) that their issues were not being taken seriously helped elect a maniac to the highest office in the land.
What kind of pain allowed this situation to happen?
And how do we do learn the answer to this question, on all levels of society? We learn to listen. To truly listen, not just provide a moment where the other person can speak so that we have time to think of what we’re going to say next.
We need to listen to what others around us are truly saying, deep down. We need to remember that to converse, we need to ask the other person questions, not only to understand better what they’re saying, but to help them feel like we want to hear what they’re saying, that we’re open to them sharing themselves with us.
If we continually shut people out by shifting the conversation back to ourselves all the time, we’re just making noise. There is no real connection happening.
At the same time, if we’re polite listeners and let our conversation partners dominate the conversation all the time, and if we continually come away feeling frustrated and unheard, we need to pay attention to that. We need to listen to ourselves. It’s OK to choose not to be around people who don’t listen well. I’ve chosen more and more to only be around those who listen as well as talk, when possible. I just feel better around people who are actively interested in being present with me.
I want to encourage everyone who is reading this: become aware of your skills of listening. Pay attention to when, in conversation, you feel most present and engaged. Is it when you’re talking? Or when you’re listening? It’s time to level up our listening skills, because a culture of only talkers and no listeners is neither sustainable nor pleasant.
Who did you listen to today?
What Is Joy?
Can life really be joyful, even when hard things happen? Maybe not on the surface, but below our pain and fear, below the judgment of ourselves and others, there's a kernel that's an inherent and unstoppable desire to live; to see what happens next. At JATHT, we'll explore life, love, joy, and sorrow and hopefully learn something in the process. Welcome!