Beyond the Dinner Guests
Other Listening Challenges
While the dinner guest list illustrates many of the fundamental hiccups we encounter in the land of listening and being listened to, there are other foundational fractures in the art of communication that are trickier to personify.
The following sections dive into these unique challenges. Click on the title to visit each and learn more.
- The Third Ear: The Challenge of Listening to Ourselves
- Being able to listen to ourselves enables our ability to listen well to others. In order to truly listen to ourselves, we must overcome the resistance that arises and practice Self-Love.
- Unmet Expectations: We Have Unconscious Expectations of the Speaker
- When we enter a conversation, we unconsciously expect certain considerations from the speaker: Brevity, Truth, Novelty, Clarity & Order, and Relevance. If these things are not present, we have a harder time taking the speaker seriously.
- Messy Listening: When We’re Not Ready to Listen, Our Listening Skills get “Messy”
- Messy Listening is our inability to give our full attention and presence to the speaker. We can thus acknowledge where we are at and make choices in our conversations accordingly.
- The Threat of Curiosity: Curiosity Can be Vulnerable and Sometimes Feels Dangerous
- Listening to others is a vulnerable practice because it opens us up to others’ influence and relinquishes some of our control.
- How to Take Care of Yourself While Listening: Privilege and Responsibility
- You do not have to martyr yourself to listen deeply to everyone. We must be conscious of both our privileges and personal responsibility when it comes to listening and being listened to.
- Cancel Culture: Social Media Issues Mimic the Challenges of Modern Dialogue
- Refusing to listen to others has become increasingly popular today as can be easily witnessed in the arena of social media platforms.
The Third Ear
The Challenge and Imperative of Listening to Ourselves
Listening to ourselves is the same practice as genuinely listening to others.
Theodor Reik was a psychoanalyst who studied under Freud in the early 1900s. Issues with psychoanalytic theory aside, Reik wrote an interesting book called, “Listening with the Third Ear,” which explores how a psychoanalyst must intuitively use their own unconscious minds to understand others. He claimed that psychoanalysts were able to understand their patients most deeply when they first understood themselves deeply.
This idea highlights an interesting ingredient in listening well: to understand another’s experience, we must first have had a similar experience ourselves. Perhaps not the exact same experience… And, we must first become aware of our own biases, filters, emotions, triggers, stories, and ultimately how all of these things influence our lives. We’ve touched on this a bit when talking about the factor of Awareness, which helps us understand how we weigh and process experiences, thus empowering us to regulate. The idea of the Third Ear expands on this by emphasizing our degree of self-awareness as essential to our capacity for empathizing with others on a deeper level.
Don’t worry- this doesn’t mean you have to have the exact same experiences as someone else to be able to empathize and listen effectively.
That would be impossible, as there are an infinite number of factors that make our experiences unique to us. Rather, it implies that we must be in touch with the universalities of the human condition.
By first empathizing with ourselves by seeing our emotional experiences as not only valid but ordinary and intrinsic to being human, we can better project that understanding onto others in a meaningful way.
“There is nothing human which is alien to us. Everything is in me. I am a little child… a murderer… a saint.” – Erich Fromm, “The Art of Listening”
“When we think of listening, we think of focusing on others in order to hear them. But the more I learned about it, the more apparent it became that so much of effective listening is actually being aware of yourself: your own tendencies, habitual responses, what your body language may be communicating to others, the topics that hit on a tender spot and draw out an emotional response from you, even the environments, company, or time of day that can make your listening powers stronger or weaker.” – Ximena Vengoechea, Author of “Listen Like You Mean It”
It can be incredibly difficult to learn to listen to ourselves. We often experience resistance to confronting our emotional landscape and the nature of our belief systems. This discomfort may stem from an unconscious fear of what we think is (or want to be) true about ourselves or the world potentially being false.
Perhaps that sounds like a lofty claim, but consider the following example:
Matilda was raised in a family that looks disdainfully upon emotional expression. Whenever she became upset growing up, her parents would tell her to be mature and (essentially) get over it. Emotional conversations were always clipped or never touched on at all. This environment led Matilda to be an adult that rarely indulges in emotions. When upset, she swallows her reactions and distracts herself (like an “Adult”). This repression leads to her not showing up authentically in her relationships and feeling the need to be different to win the approval or love of others. Furthermore, she feels that her true, emotional self is unlovable, as she has not given others the chance to see this side of her and chance losing them. Listening to herself would thus involve acknowledging and experiencing nearly a lifetime of repressed emotional content that she has been avoiding, and face her fear of accepting herself as she is.
Matilda’s order in the above example is a tall one, but it is by no means uncommon. We often ignore parts of ourselves we are uncomfortable with because we believe they are unacceptable to others, and therefore to ourselves. It is a deeply human experience, and acknowledging it within ourselves enables us to connect to it in others. On the other hand, should Matilda choose to never look at this aspect of herself, it is unlikely she will be able to deeply connect to the emotional experiences of others. If she cannot accept or express her own emotional experience, how can genuinely she accept or create space for the experiences of others?
Listening to ourselves is the same practice as genuinely listening to others. We must employ Awareness, Attention, Curiosity, Empathy, and Authenticity to ourselves first if we hope to do this well with others. This is a practice that we can devote our entire lives to. Again, we expand on this in our Self-Love section. Check it out to learn more about cultivating this relationship within yourself.
Try It Out
Spend the rest of your day paying more attention to your inner dialogue than you typically do. Not just your inner dialogue, but also your feelings, energy states, and even how often you lose focus. Knowing that you are not required to DO anything about it, be honest about what you notice.
Throughout the day, ask yourself the following questions:
What am I ignoring?
Do I have this thought/feeling/experience often?
What could I be needing right now?
How is what I’m experiencing right now related to what I’m feeling and thinking?
Keep track of what you learn each day in a journal. Try it for a day, a week, or a month (if you’re feeling courageous!).
*TIP* If you keep forgetting, choose something to trigger you to remember that is a habit you already have or something you regularly see. For example, tether this practice to the habit of picking up your phone. Whenever you pick it up, go through the exercise. Likewise you could use a timer (do this at the top of the hour every hour) or before each mealtime.
We Have Unconscious Expectations of the Speaker
As we mention regularly throughout the site, we are conditioned throughout our lives to develop various filters and biases that impact how we perceive and process what we experience. One type of bias that profoundly impacts our listening is our expectations of a speaker.
When we enter a conversation, we unconsciously expect certain considerations from the speaker.
Paul Grice, a language philosopher, summed up our expectations as follows:
|Brevity||We expect them to be succinct||They go on and on, speaking for a long time||Our friend who rambles and goes on tangents|
|Truth||We expect them to tell us the truth||They share false information or lie||A child that lies about breaking something|
|Novelty||We expect to hear something new||They repeat what they’ve told us before or something we already know||Our older relative who tells us the same story every year over the holidays|
|Clarity and Order||We expect what they say to make logical sense and be easy to follow||They tell stories out of order, leave out important details, or are nonsensical||Someone who cannot explain a complex topic well/ Someone with a mental disorder speaking to strangers on the street|
|Relevance||We expect them to tell us something that is relevant to us||They speak about topics or issues that have nothing to do with us or our interests||Our co-worker that tells us how to do something we already know how to do|
When we are listening to someone and their expression misses any of these points, we can begin to disengage or lose trust in them as a conversation partner!
Any combination of these (or one element alone) makes it challenging to listen! This is where the Active/Attentive and other participatory elements of listening play a role in improving the process.
The School of Life released a video (below) that offers that listening effectively in these circumstances may require us to act like an editor: ask questions and pull out the important details of someone’s message to help them clarify or direct the content they are expressing. Connecting empathically and striving to understand beyond these expectations when they go unmet accounts for a significant part of the effort applied in effective listening.
How To Be A Good Listener
This video from The School of Life encourages us to listen like an editor. Listening includes how we engage in conversation. By asking questions and directing attention to important but under-explored points, we can help a speaker clarify their message.
Try It Out
Print out the Expectations here, and after a conversation with someone (once you’re alone – please don’t do this in someone’s company!) pull it out and go through the list. Ask yourself if they fulfilled each of the criteria, and subsequently how engaged you felt. Did you attempt to support them where they didn’t meet an expectation?
When We’re Not Ready to Listen, Our Listening Skills get “Messy”
Messy Listening is our inability to give our full attention and presence to the speaker.
Sometimes it’s tough to listen to someone, even when we really want to.
Have you ever found yourself in a conversation where you want or know it is important to pay attention to, respect, and connect with the speaker, but you’re struggling to listen to the best of your ability?
When we’re listening despite it not being ideal circumstances, we engage in sub-par listening.
We engage in this “Messy Listening” all the time. Our energy levels, physical wellbeing, emotional sensitivity, and our lives generally are in constant flux. Factors within or outside of us influence how easy it is to fully engage in a conversation.
It isn’t wrong to Messy Listen! In fact, we’re regularly at a disadvantage to listening effectively: we often don’t have the skills, time, rapport, or the power-equality dynamic with our conversation partner that lays the ground for perfect listening conditions.
In light of this, it’s important to recognize when we’re Messy Listening because that awareness can empower us to engage differently or open up the opportunity to engage another time.
Actions to take when you realize you’re Messy Listening:
- Reveal your inability to be completely present
- Ask to speak at a later time, or
- Take what you understand with a grain of salt (as you know you’re not getting the full picture, due to lack of attention or lack of skill)
- If you can, take a moment to refocus and become more present.
Common Messy Listening Scenarios
- You’re caught off guard by the conversation.
- The time isn’t right for a full conversation, and you’re not committed to no conversation either.
- You’re not in the right space to listen, but you’re going to do it anyway.
- You’ve just started reading about listening, and recognize you’re very far away from competent, yet you’re listening to folks.
- You don’t really have the energy/interest/passion to listen, but you’re doing it anyway.
- You’re off balance or triggered.
- You can’t remember half of what you know about listening.
- The situational or social factors are not ideal, and not the worst ever, and you’re going to listen.
- Some mix of the above is happening.
We Can Navigate Messy Listening with Awareness, Integrity, and Vulnerability.
- We use our Awareness to notice that we are Messy Listening
- We use our Integrity to assess if we’re showing up in a way we value, and whether or not how we’re listening is in alignment with our Agenda
- We use our Vulnerability to reveal if it isn’t a good time to listen, and bravely ask for what we need so we can stay in Integrity with ourselves and the speaker.
You can read more about this idea here.
In other words (and for a refresh)…
The Steps to Deal with Messy Listening:
- Recognize you are not completely present.
- Identify what is keeping you from being able to listen completely.
- Choose the most appropriate response:
- Come back to the distraction later and recenter/regulate yourself in the present moment.
- Notify your conversation partner and make a request about the conditions of the conversation if necessary.
- If the two above are not options, accept that you are not fully present, validate the experience you are having, and continue to listen at your best considering the circumstances.
To build awareness of your Messy Listening and empower yourself to show up more attentively and lovingly in your relationships, try this simple reflection:
At the end of the day take a moment to sit and reflect on your conversations (try to attach it to a habit you already have: right before bed is a great time!). Consider who you interacted with and how you showed up in conversation with them. For each one, ask yourself the following questions:
- Identify if you were messy listening: were you distracted, in a rush, tired, emotional, not ready to talk, not feeling well, not wanting to talk?
- What specifically was going on that got in the way of listening?
- Did you notice that in the moment? If or if not, how did you handle it?
- How do you think the Messy Listening impacted the conversation?
- What are some options for what to do next time this happens?
- Pick one of those options for next time!
The Threat of Curiosity
Curiosity Can Be Vulnerable and Sometimes Feels Dangerous
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill
Genuine listening requires courage in ways we don’t conventionally consider. As with the courage and vulnerability involved in listening to ourselves, listening to others is a vulnerable practice because it opens us up to others’ influence and relinquishes some of our control.
You may be hard-pressed to find anyone that would admit that listening is “scary.” However, at a subconscious level, we often avoid fully listening because it makes us vulnerable to either being changed by people we disagree with or dislike, or to the threat of having our agenda misunderstood.
An assumption that makes listening scary is that interest and attention are the same as agreement and approval, and an attitude that makes listening scary is a fear of being influenced (which may also be framed as losing control).
Examples of Vulnerable Curiosity
We Open Ourselves to Influence
Scenario: Discussing gay marriage with someone that you strongly disagree with
How we fear it will go:
By listening to their side (read: “considering that there is some kind of truth in it”) we admit that our belief system may not be complete, or even wrong. Listening to them may also feel like giving their beliefs or behavior “permission,” when what we really believe they need is to be shown the damaging consequences of their beliefs/behaviors.
Consequences for this fear on our behavior:
We engage in the conversation like a tennis match, trying to appeal to their mind or heart, and potentially turning it into a debate or argument. Someone may get upset (which further impedes listening) and either party may choose to leave the interaction entirely.
How it could go with Curiosity:
By being aware of the fear of being influenced or giving permission, we’re able to ground ourselves and exercise our intellectual humility. We regard our conversation partner as a teacher and feel open to learning about their personal beliefs while staying confident in our ability to make informed choices regarding our own beliefs. In fact, we can see how this conversation will enhance our ability to make an educated choice and increase empathy for other perspectives.
By expressing genuine interest, openness, and asking questions, the other party feels heard and is more open to hearing our perspective. Both parties leave with better understanding.
Our Agenda May be Misunderstood
Scenario: Going on a date
How we fear it will go:
By really listening to them (read: “showing sincere interest and giving our full attention”) we could open ourselves up to the attention or desire of someone we end up not being romantically interested in. They could end up being pushy or forward and would need to be told to back off.
Consequences for this fear on our behavior:
We choose not to be fully present with them while we suss them out. We end up not having a very good time because we don’t allow ourselves to connect deeply, and spend the evening passively trying to communicate disinterest.
How it could go with Curiosity:
By being aware of this hesitation to be open to this person, we can see how those fears are impacting our behavior and choose to be patient with ourselves and stretch out of our comfort zone a bit to be curious about this person. If our genuine interest is misconstrued, we can clarify our intentions when appropriate. On the other hand, we may connect on a deeper level and become good friends or romantically involved. We could also take ownership over the opportunity to have a good time regardless of the romantic outcome.
While we cannot control someone else’s interpretation of us, assuming that listening validates ideas or beliefs is incorrect. Listening and being curious towards someone validates them as a human being, views aside. Generously choosing to see people as doing their best in any given moment helps us generate better understanding that can lead to learning and growth.
Why I, as a black man, attend KKK rallies | Daryl Davis | TEDxNaperville
Daryl Black attended KKK rallies to gain understanding of a group of people that he not only couldn’t understand at all, but could justifiably despise. He cultivated life-changing friendships in the process.
When we’re unwilling to be curious and listen, we are focusing more on ourselves and our discomfort, beliefs, identity, and fears than we are on trying to understand the other person. This can be an indication that we’re not practicing Self-Regulation or we’re not Aware of our filters.
As mentioned above, fully listening to someone is also scary, because it can feel like giving up control. In a way, pure, genuine listening does this, at least partially. We share control with the other party, playing out our role as their witness. Being uncomfortable giving up this control in a conversation is far from abnormal, and it may be an indication of low Security.
Do an experiment and risk being a little uncomfortable (being in our challenge zone helps us grow and learn!).
*Worth-while experiments are low risk, easy to do, and could have a big pay off. Keep this in mind.
Having Your Agenda Misunderstood
Spend some time with someone you do not know very well. It could be a date or a hangout with a new friend or co-worker. Be intentional about listening effectively during your time together. Monitor whether or not you feel the need to explain yourself or don’t want to seem too interested in something they are talking about. Simply notice it. When your time together is over, reflect on the times this did (or did not) occur, and what was behind your discomfort in those moments.
*See our section on Curiosity within the context of Listening for more, and our section of the website dedicated to Curiosity in general.
How to Take Care of Yourself While Listening: Privilege and Responsibility
You do not have to martyr yourself to listen deeply to everyone. We must be conscious of both our privileges and personal responsibility when it comes to listening and being listened to.
TL;DR: Anchor yourself to yourself. Establish and honor your boundaries.
“Using the tool of listening does not mean we stop listening to ourselves. The listening path is not masochistic; rather it is realistic, built on the accurate appraisal of where and with whom we can experience reciprocity.” –Julia Cameron, “The Listening Path”
Have you ever found yourself losing focus while listening because you’ve been listening with such dedication that you’re exhausted? Or because you’re beginning to feel taken advantage of and starting to get a bit upset? Or find yourself wanting out of the situation and not feeling sure how to do it?
Your friend is upset about an interaction they had with a mutual pal. She begins to talk poorly of your mutual friend and make negative generalizations about their character. You tell her that you are happy to support her in a way other than listening to them insult your friend, as it puts you in a delicate position. She gets a bit upset about this and defends herself, continuing to blame and say things about the person who isn’t there.
You’re at a party and talking to someone you just met. You are slightly distracted because someone you want to date is also at the party, and your main intention is to create the opportunity to connect with them. However, you don’t want to miss making a connection with this person who seems very kind. The conversation is going on longer than you intended, however, and now the two of you have gone down a rabbit hole of a topic that you’ve slowly grown tired of, but they seem to be quite excited to talk about. Your attention is waning as you feel the desire to move on.
You are a young woman going to the doctor. Your normal physician (a woman) had to cancel at the last minute but a male doctor can take your appointment. You have a story that your physical or emotional complaints have been minimized by male doctors in the past. You’re scared that when you tell the doctor that you’ve been struggling with headaches and mood swings, you won’t be taken seriously. However, you still really want to have this appointment today. How will you choose to navigate listening to his offerings?
Listening Can Lead to Burn Out
Many of us want to be as supportive and loving towards others as possible. However, striving for this ‘ultimate-best-listener’ title may lead us to neglect ourselves.
It’s even easy to believe that fully taking care of ourselves and showing up fully to listen cannot coexist.
With this mindset, listening becomes a practice of total sacrifice. And in many ways listening can be a sacrifice, which is okay.
The issue arises when we begin to martyr ourselves or aren’t aware of how we’re neglecting ourselves in the first place. Listening is not only a sacrifice, and it’s not a sacrifice that should leave you completely depleted!
Listening can require a hefty dose of our emotional and physical energy. This leads to burnout when we don’t (or don’t know how to) manage our energy or set our boundaries in conversation.
However, the wonderfully deep levels of connection, offerings of compassion and understanding, support, and expansion can occur with both the listener’s AND the speaker’s needs getting met.
So how do we do this?
We are responsible for knowing our own needs and finding ways to get them met. We cannot expect everyone we meet to know and understand the rules of courtesy we follow and expect of others- therefore we must ask others for what we need and learn when and how to set boundaries.
In order to take care of yourself while listening, do the following (each explained in detail below):
- Put on YOUR oxygen mask before assisting others
- Anchor yourself
- Establish and honor your boundaries
- Be aware of privilege
- Don’t listen perfectly all the time. Don’t listen to everyone all the time. And certainly don’t listen to everyone perfectly all the time.
1. Put on YOUR oxygen mask before assisting others.
Classic advice in the realm of rescuing people (or in the event of plane crash) admonishes us to make sure we are safe first so we can be available to help others. It is similar with listening! When your needs are met you can show up better for others.
Make sure your needs are met first before listening, so you CAN show up fully and listen!
Writer and researcher Ximena Vengoechea calls this emotional and physical exhaustion, “Listener’s Drain,” in her new book Listen Like You Mean It. She suggests preventative and restorative practices for managing your energy. Preventative practices include your daily self-care to make sure you’re at your best, while restorative practices include follow-up behaviors and habits to recuperate after an intense chat. (The concept of preventative and restorative practices can be extended to boundaries in relationships… see point 3).
Try Preventative and Restorative practices like the following for managing “Listener’s Drain.”
Preventative Practices for Listening
- Sleep 7-9 hours
- Eat enough, and eat well.
- Meditate in the morning to clear your mind.
- Bring a snack with you.
- Have a plan for the conversation. (Before starting a conversation that could be tough, plan to pace yourself with a break if you need to, decide a regulation practice if necessary, and commit to an attitude of curiosity and patience.)
- Commit to an attitude for the day like compassionate, patient, curious, or enthusiastic.
- Stay hydrated.
During Listening Practices
- Take breaks
- Scan your body to notice positive or negative sensations.
- Intentional breathing.
- Readjust your body to be comfortable.
- Go for a walk while you chat.
- Pace yourself by noticing when you hit a wall (see boundaries below).
Restorative Practices for Listening
- Have some intentional quiet time after the chat or at the end of the day. Don’t do ANYTHING but sit in silence for 10 minutes.
- Go for a walk outside.
- Do something that you genuinely enjoy but don’t often make time for.
- Spend some time with a loved one.
- Process your experience with someone you trust.
2. Anchor yourself
“Sometimes I start to lose myself in their story. As soon as I notice feeling unmoored, I try to pull myself back into my body, like returning home. As Hannah Arendt says, ‘One trains one’s imagination to go visiting.’ When the story is done, we must return to our skin, our own worldview, and notice how we have been changed by our visit.” – Documentary filmmaker Valarie Kaur
For some folks the issue is less about staying engaged and more about being completely absorbed. This can lead to absorbing the other person’s emotions and beliefs. Beginning with the intention to remain sovereign and continually check back in with oneself can help avoid this issue. “Anchor yourself” to yourself by reminding yourself you are your own person and have your own beliefs, feelings, and experiences occurring. It is not wrong to empathize, and it is important to come back to yourself to prevent burnout.
3. Establish and honor your boundaries.
The tipping point for this dilemma of energy management is the intersection of knowing our personal needs and feelings while balancing them with our desire to support (or please or pacify) the person we’re listening to. Those with “people-pleasing” tendencies can struggle more with setting boundaries while listening, as they don’t want to offend, hurt, alienate, or dismiss another person.
The first step in preventing this is becoming self-aware. Begin to examine what you are comfortable with and what you are not. This will be different for everyone (as we’ve all had different experiences; see point 4) and where you are at right now is OK. We want to respect where we’re at and find safe places (and people) to stretch with.
Consider what you’re comfortable or uncomfortable with in listening regarding the following things:
- Which people feel safe to listen to?
- Which people do I feel more drained after I listen to, and which people do I feel more energized after listening to?
- What time of day or length of time feels most comfortable, and under which circumstances?
- How much space do you need (emotionally and physically)?
- What topics are ok or not ok?
You can figure out your boundaries sometimes when they get crossed. You might become uncomfortable, anxious, impatient, want to change the topic or leave. When you feel discomfort, ask yourself, “Is a boundary being crossed right now? What might it be?”
Discomfort is not always a sign that we should shut out the other person or make a request. It is up to you to determine if it feels safe to stretch your boundaries, and at what rate.
To set boundaries, we must ask for what we need and not assume the other person understands or observes the same rules that we follow. When they cross a boundary without you having informed them, give them the benefit of the doubt and make a request (ie: “I’m feeling uncomfortable discussing abortion, can we change the topic?”). You can become firmer or take bigger actions if they continue to cross the boundary (ie, leave the conversation).
Learning to set boundaries can be very challenging. We have to develop a tolerance for being uncomfortable, for asking for what we need, and not being afraid that we will inconvenience or offend the other person.
4. Be aware of the impact of privilege.
Self-care and boundaries get even trickier when there are power dynamics at play. Privilege is a power dynamic often unnoticed by the person who possesses it and has an enormous impact on our comfort with listening to someone.
Psychologist Rick Hanson and his son Forrest discuss the role of privilege in listening at the end of this episode of their podcast, explaining that privilege and power affect how comfortable it is to listen to people in a totally open way. Women or marginalized groups whose attention has been culturally deemed to ‘mean something’ or be expected may have more to work through to feel comfortable listening fully. They explain that many men or people in power may feel more comfortable listening because their attention is less likely to be exploited.
What privileges do you possess or lack and what does your culture say about the meaning of your attention? How has this been influenced by your personal experiences (did anyone take advantage of your attention as a child?)?
Privilege can fall along the lines of age, gender, race, sexual preference, wealth, education, ability, or influence.
5. Don’t listen perfectly all the time. Don’t listen to everyone all the time. And certainly don’t listen to everyone perfectly all the time.
“There is no moral imperative to be an attuned listener to everyone who walks down the street, but it is good to have the skills to have them to offer when you want to offer them.” —Forrest Hanson
You do not need to listen in an exemplary, completely loving, and present fashion at all times! This is hard work! Not everyone is ‘worth’ listening to like this even if you want to be the most loving person on the planet. You must be the judge of whether or not a person will exploit you, or you fear you won’t be able to interrupt and set a boundary once the conversation has begun. This is the art of establishing and honoring your boundaries.
As Forrest Hanson mentions in this episode of his podcast, listening openly to everyone will be hard for different reasons, in different amounts, for different people. Your attention may have been exploited in the past or interpreted as permission or acceptance. Learning to correct or hold others accountable to what is true for you and manage such relationship dynamics may take healing before you can flex that muscle freely.
So ease into it. Listen in deep and empathic styles with people you trust or when you feel safe. When you feel comfortable trying it, slowly begin practicing it with people you ordinarily might not and remember to honor your boundaries.
Try It Out
List your fears in listening and why you think you have them. Consider scenarios you wouldn’t want to be in regarding power/privilege dynamics, time, environment, people, or topics.
What experiences in your past do you imagine have contributed to these fears?
Who do you feel comfortable listening to, who do you not?
From each fear, list a boundary.
Turn each boundary into a request you can actually ask someone if it gets crossed.
List 3 exit strategies to use in the event your boundary gets crossed after you make your request.
Next time you’re in a longer conversation this week, monitor your body and emotions. Take note when any discomfort arises and ask yourself if a boundary has been crossed. What is it and why might it be there? Or, is the discomfort a sign of growth for you?
Social Media Issues Mimic the Challenges of Modern Dialogue
Cancel Culture is the tendency that has developed online to block or unfollow people that post things you may disagree with. It could be that you find their opinions or posts annoying, wrong, destructive, or uncomfortable. The heart of the issue, however, is that we choose to remove them rather than try to understand them. And it’s moving beyond the realm of the feed and into our in-person interactions.
Refusing to listen to others has become increasingly popular today as can be easily witnessed in the arena of social media platforms. How often do you see opinion posts from people you disagree with that incite a negative reaction from you? Have you ‘unfollowed’ them? Did you engage in debating their assertions?
Social media feeds are not the ideal environment for listening to one another.
Missing the rich nuance offered by in-person dialogue (tone, inflection, facial expressions, posture, touch, nods, eye-contact, emotion, timing, and beyond), the online platform diminishes our ability to relate to one another as living, breathing, feeling human beings, which can impact how we treat one another.
People are more likely to be aggressive, accusatory, and use inflammatory language online than they are in person, a documented phenomenon known as the Disinhibition Effect. It’s kind of like getting angry in traffic- you might say some nasty stuff in your car that you’d be unlikely to say to a person’s face. Think about the kinds of insults hurled at strangers in forums. It is much easier to be cruel without the reality of another’s humanity directly in front of us.
Our social media sites are geared more towards expression than they are geared towards listening. Designed and tested for user engagement and retention, these websites use our need for affirmation to keep us involved. Sites like Facebook are designed to make us feel heard, no matter what we say or who is actually listening. The culture encourages us to “share” everything as a way to connect, and that connection is represented by “likes.”
It’s bizarre to consider that feeling heard or seen online often boils down to a handful of people clicking a smiley-face or heart button. That would never fly with in-person interactions. Imagine you’re in a room in which everyone you know is gathered, and after composing a paragraph-length message about a challenging experience you had or about a recent accomplishment, you declare it to the group. You aren’t sure if everyone heard you, but your closest circle of friends all look towards you and smile or give you a thumbs up. Perhaps a few of them offer a short few words.
This scenario is absurd. We expect far more engagement from our in-person, close relationships. Social media isn’t designed for deep connection; rather it is designed to promote expression and provide affirmation (also referred to as ‘personal broadcasting’ in this context). When a venue prioritizes talking over listening, very little real understanding can occur.
Unfortunately, that reality doesn’t stop people from attempting to have very emotional, high-stakes conversations on these platforms that lack the conventional social patterns that encourage compassionate relating. And like it or not, this dissociative online culture probably has a significant influence on our in-person culture. It gives us the impression that people we disagree with are increasingly intolerant, aggressive, and stubborn (sometimes driving us to be the same).
While online, we may ignore people’s opinions we disagree with, we may debate with them in the unhealthy approaches fostered by the social media container, we might engage thoughtfully, or we may “cancel” them altogether.
“Cancelling” them could be the most destructive response of all.
Cancel Culture is the tendency that has developed online to block or unfollow people that post things you may disagree with. It could be that you find their opinions or posts annoying, wrong, destructive, or uncomfortable. The heart of the issue, however, is that we choose to remove them rather than try to understand them.
This is often construed as a political or moral decision. Similar to the phenomenon occurring on liberal college campuses in which the student body protests speaking engagements they disagree with until the events are cancelled, the intolerance of Cancel Culture online works by refusing to engage with different perspectives. There seems to be (understandable) confusion along the spectrum of protest and intolerance, and this confusion contributes to the increasing polarization of the modern Western political climate. By refusing to engage in civil discourse, we limit our capacity to find solutions through greater understanding of the issues and people involved.
Compassionate dialogue has become increasingly rare, as evidenced by the (apparent) ideological extremes we encounter online and amongst our personal networks.
A desire to change or avoid another person’s perspective is the opposite of seeking to understand it— such deep understanding is the ultimate objective of Listening.
Powerful implications for living can be found in the simplest tenets of listening: be curious, stay grounded, and be loving*. When we engage those with differences in this way, we are more likely to learn, grow, and influence one another in meaningful ways.
*Similar to NVC’s “Be Quiet. Be Genuine. Be Curious.”
Joan Blades and John Gable: Free yourself from your filter bubbles
In this TedTalk from leaders of MoveOn.org and AllSides.com, the speakers explain the value of compassionate dialogue and finding ways to get outside your echo-chamber, explaining that the current polarization threatens peace and democracy. They advocate for intentional dialogue amongst people of different ideologies through programs like Living Room Conversations.
Notice yourself shutting down when someone begins to express opinions different from yours? Here are some exercises to help you engage in compassionate listening (or even dialogue!).
Try It Out
Do an experiment and risk being a little uncomfortable (being in our challenge zone helps us grow and learn!).
*Worth-while experiments are low risk, easy to do, and could have a big pay off. Keep this in mind.
Opening Yourself to Influence
Think of a friend that you disagree with on something (perhaps a 4-6 out of 10 on a scale of intensity). Ask them if they would be willing to explain their view to you in detail on the topic you disagree on, without you arguing your point back. When someone is willing, spend the time asking them quality questions to increase your understanding. Notice when you have resistance to their offerings, and do not offer a counter argument. Do your best to regulate and continue to listen.
When the conversation is over, reflect on what was challenging about it for you. What was it like to open yourself to influence?
*You can use the guide or prompts from Living Room Conversations.
Clearly, Listening isn’t easy!
- Listening is hard!
- We’re at an ironic neurological disadvantage due to our large processing capacity.
- We haven’t been taught how to listen, or practiced it to increase our skill.
- The most common mistakes we make have to do with Self-focus, and lack of Curiosity and Awareness.
There are even more challenges to listening, in addition to common ones personified in the ‘Dinner Guests:’
- We often listen when the circumstances aren’t ideal.
- Being curious can be scary. It takes practice and courage to open up to influence.
- Our unconscious expectations in conversation lead us to listen less thoroughly.
- It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves by choosing who to listen to and when. Being aware of our privilege and our power in listening dynamics shows respect to ourselves and others.
- There is a cultural trend (Cancel Culture) to refuse to listen, impacting modern dialogue by directing it away from compassionate discourse towards intolerance.
We have psychological pressures driving us to affirm our personal worth, desires to be helpful, minds wired to wander, a need to be right, and cultural structures that favor expression over dialogue (just to name a few!) as obstacles to Listening well.
On top of ALL of this, most of us are never taught to listen properly.
While understanding the challenges we commonly encounter can help us grow in awareness, we can also complement this by consciously dedicating ourselves to the practice of listening itself.
You’ve already begun to take your listening education into your own hands, continue on to Better Listening to grow your listening skills even further.