We live in an ego-driven world. We’re selfish. We have a lot to say, and we expect people to listen. In part, this is super empowering that we’re so independent with such strong voices. We follow our dreams and we do what we have to do, but often we don’t pay attention or pause to contemplate how our presence and moreover how our words affect the people with whom we interact. While ‘ego’ and ‘selfish’ typically have a negative connotation, I think that these things can be mostly good if we’re doing what we need to consider and prioritize things and people other than ourselves. I mean, if it weren’t for our strong egos and sometimes selfish behaviors, we wouldn’t have world-class entrepreneurs giving us the newest and greatest, we wouldn’t have all-new yoga formats being developed by all-star instructors all over the globe, and we wouldn’t have the latest update for the iPhone 6s. All of these can’t-live-without and taken-for-granted things come from the person who says: “That’s great, but I can do it better. I have a better idea, and I’m going to deliver.” Which is, at its very core, a pretty ego-strong and selfish declaration, right? So, that’s a great example of good ego and selfishness that evolves into something for the greater good.
It’s a fine line, though, and we must be mindful of listening and how we are listened to. And both of these are important to work on; sometimes we’re doing the talking, sometimes we’re doing the listening. Because we live in this ego-driven, sometimes-selfish, super fast-paced and over-stimulating society, we often hear without listening and respond with an ego-tangent. I like to think of ego-tangents as those times when you’re in a conversation with a friend and the audible vibrations of their voice are being received, meaning that you can hear them talking and you know that there are words being strung together purposefully to convey an idea, but you have no idea what they’re actually communicating to you because after the first five words, you already started formulating your response in your own head — completely muting any words that are still coming. You’re not listening. You’re hearing. And if you’re reading this and thinking: Mannnnnn, I do that all the time! Don’t worry. We all do. Or, maybe you actually believe you’re a good listener and this habit of thinking up a response in your own head is so second nature that you don’t even realize you’re doing it.
I did this just the other night while “watching” an episode of The Walking Dead. It was on the TV. I was sitting in front of the TV. The episode was streaming. I was on my phone almost the entire time perusing social media, but I was also *totally* watching the show. Multi-tasking, right? It sounds great in theory. Wouldn’t it be great if we could cook dinner, respond to those five text messages we’ve neglected, catch up on our favorite shows, all while having quality conversation with our spouse?
Sometimes we actually do those four or five or ten things at once, label it “juggling multiple things at the same time,” and file it under our long lists of personal expertise. And so we keep on keepin’ on operating under this really ego-flattering illusion that we’re just extremely skilled at doing it all. In truth, it’s impossible as humans for our brains to participate at full capacity in so many things at once. So, what it ends up looking like is this: kids whining and you volunteering to eat the burnt parts of dinner, shows that need to be re-watched because you missed the introduction of the new character and have no idea why so-and-so is now fighting with what’s-her-name, and totally unnecessary arguments with the people who matter most in your life where you find yourself repeating the same thing a million times and talking over one another in a battle of who can say it louder. I guess what it all comes down to is whether we want to do 20 things poorly, or two things really well. All I know is that from personal experience, it’s just a complete waste of my time to watch the same show twice. It also really, really sucks to feel unheard and misunderstood. We can all agree there, right?
Here are three ways we can all direct our attention more mindfully and become better listeners:
- Distinguish between hearing and listening, and start to observe when you’re doing which. Hearing is instinctively automatic. It’s simply the act of perceiving sound. Listening is a choice, and listening eliminates distraction. Start to pay attention to what’s happening with your own inner voice while you’re in a conversation with someone else. Are you concentrating on each of the words being spoken in a way that will allow you to summarize what was just said, in full? Or, did you catch a couple of words that you’d like to comment on, and now you’re formulating a response based on only a piece of what was said? This week, try to merely pay attention to whether you’re a good hearer, or a good listener. Observation first.
- Create the ideal conditions for listening well. If you’ve found that you have a bad habit of only half-paying attention (the vast majority of us), you can improve upon this by creating a situation that makes it easier to listen well. This week, or next time you’re in a conversation with someone, turn your phone on silent and place it face down next to you, or away completely. That way, even if your intentions are good and right, you won’t be tempted to instinctively take a peak when you get a text message or a new notification. If a conversation is planned and you’re setting up a time to discuss something important, find a spot that fosters eye contact. Sitting across from someone at the kitchen table is much better than cozying up on the couch or hanging out at a noisy restaurant.
- Ask if you got it right. We aren’t all therapists. And odds are, unless you specifically went to school to counsel, you don’t want to sound like one in your natural conversations with friends and loved ones. Yet, how many times are our arguments due in some part to being either unheard or completely misunderstood? This is an important one, especially if you or the person you’re speaking with start sounding like a broken record, conveying the same message five different ways with hopes that it’ll be better understood if you just phrase it another way. Next time you’re in a discussion, listen fully without interjecting an opinion of your own, and only when the other person is finished talking, try responding with: “What I’m understanding from what you just said is ___________________. Is that right?” With this method, the person you’re taking to can other confirm or clarify if it’s needed.
None of us are expert communicators, but being mindful of when you’re asking your brain to do a million things at once and then pausing to reevaluate whether or not it’s working is a step in the right direction. Are you hearing, or are you listening?