I am a lover of words, a lover of conversation, someone who is incredibly interested in learning new things. And I often do my learning via story, as many of us do. I am also a story teller, a person who revels in teasing out the details and painting a picture and explaining (over-explaining, “selling past the close,” as my husband says sometimes) in order for others to understand.
And so when my words are misconstrued, I get frustrated.
When my stories are interrupted, because the listener thinks they already know what I’m saying, or they’ve formed some opinion that is counter to mine, I get even more frustrated.
When I watch the interruption be compounded by other voices piling on, interrupting other speakers, or further taking my comments away from where I would have had them go, I often go in to defensive mode and try to swing it all back to where I started. Unfortunately, that is where I lose the purpose of the dialogue and make things worse.
Listening is a difficult thing to do, especially when we have been taught that we show our intelligence by challenging others’ versions of things, by demonstrating our knowledge and talking, talking, talking. So much of what we do as human beings is try to convince others that our viewpoint is the best, the most accurate, the “right” one. Often, we get so attached to our own perspective that we take it personally when someone doesn’t agree with us, isn’t awestruck by the story we’ve told that illustrates why our reality is so much more valid than the one they presented.
As I get older, I am beginning to think that intelligence doesn’t lie anywhere near the realm of talking. When we rush to interrupt someone else and inject our own version of things, we aren’t showing our cleverness, we are demonstrating our need to be heard rather than a desire to learn.
It is difficult, but I think that the people who are the most intelligent are those who are quiet, who listen with a clear mind and ask thoughtful, clarifying questions. When someone else is talking to us, they are attempting to explain something that we don’t already know, that we may not have experienced. If we are to truly engage in a mutually satisfying exchange, it is imperative that we seek to understand, not race to respond.
This is especially hard to do in group settings. Often, the need to prove ourselves takes over and we first engage in body language that is assertive (eye rolling, head shaking, leaning in and opening our mouths in anticipation of ‘our turn,’) and then label (“that’s racist,” “that’s wrong,”) or use superlatives like always/never, or make it personal (“that’s not my experience; here’s something I did/said/saw that proves your experience is invalid/inaccurate/wrong”). We are bolstered by others in the group whose body language seems to support us and once we make it personal or begin exaggerating with superlatives, the conversation becomes less about learning and more about picking whose side you will be on. It is nearly impossible for anyone to leave a conversation like that without feeling as though they’ve had to choose between two very different ideas. It is also nearly impossible for either of the proponents of those ideas to learn from the other. They’ve effectively set themselves up to react emotionally and defend their position to the death because it is now personal. Their very ego is tied up in the outcome. If my position is “better,” I am a smart person. If my position “loses,” I am a stupid person.
Unfortunately, I don’t often recognize that this is what is happening in the moment. Generally, all I feel is a sense of unease and frustration and then an overwhelming urge to defend myself, prove myself. It is not until later that I can ask myself the question, Why did that bother me so much? Why can’t I let it go? Generally, it is because I feel misunderstood and what I wanted more than anything was to be heard and understood. It wasn’t about being Right or Wrong, it was about an exchange of ideas. The thing is, when I am listened to in that way – when people can pause a moment after I’m done speaking and then ask questions to clarify (vs. questions designed to challenge) – I am more likely to solicit ideas from them because we both want the same thing – to learn something we didn’t already know.
I am amazed at the habitual way we have conversations, even with those we call friends and family, who we trust. I know that showing up in this way is critical to strengthening relationships and that it is hard work and takes a lot of practice. I am sometimes upset that I need to work so hard at it, but I also hope that if others in my life are also striving to get better at really listening, maybe we can all reinforce each others’ efforts.