It’s terrible, isn’t it? Come on… admit it.
When we’re talking to someone and they’re not listening, we find ourselves disappointed by the conversation. Even frustrated. Possibly angered, or outraged. Especially if what we’re talking about is very important to us in that very moment, and… what?!? The other person(s) is not taking it seriously enough to be there fully present and engaged? It’s terrible.
It’s okay. You can admit it. These are our feelings. Don’t worry. It’s only us here. And you are not alone. No need to edit yourself. Let it all out here while you can.
I’m bringing levity to the subject, but you know you feel this way sometimes. Like, “I’m done. They’re not listening. I’m done.”
Um, don’t take this the wrong way, but… It’s not them you’re mad at anyway.
It’s you. You only try to make them feel less bad because you don’t want to feel more guilt than you already do for having done the same exact thing in the past to someone else. So it goes like this… you want for there to be consequences for them, or a punishment – let’s be real – but then the guilt comes in, and you feel bad and… well, you’re tired of feeling bad about the parts of your life you simply cannot control. And, let’s face it, being distracted in a conversation cannot be controlled, it seems. You’ve been dealing with this since you were a kid, and your mom got mad at you and said, “You’re not listening to what I’m saying!”
Ah, hell, doesn’t everybody get distracted? So, in your powerlessness, you give up, and hope it all goes better next time. But it’s an empty hope because it’s masking your very real despair. The hopelessness that it will never change because you “know” it won’t ever change for you. You know you’ll keep being distracted in conversations by Lord knows what and keep doing your best to remain attentive, but… in the end, it’s gonna happen again. You know this. For a fact. And. This. Is. The vicious cycle. Are you still with me? Have you lost your mind yet? Can you relate?
Look, it’s a multitasking world out there filled with technological advances. Distraction is sure to happen again. I know our parents disciplined us, sometimes scolded us, for it, but it’s a part of life. No two ways about it. And distraction is only one reason our attention wanes, or our listening becomes faulty.
Here are 3 ways to listen more fully in any conversation, and to fully engage with another when you catch yourself “not really listening” to them. Plus here’s one way to be straight about being distracted when you know there’s no other way you can be in the conversation. Here’s to us all finding new ways to be easy and find relief from the guilt and the shame so that we can release these unproductive feelings and be present in our lives. There’s no longer a need to harbor these feelings if you truly take these suggestions to task.
Distractions. Well, normally, this would be number one on our list, but that would be boring and predictable. I want to keep you engaged. So we’re kicking Distractions to the curb for now and starting with something more off the beaten path.
First, That Voice you hear while others are talking. You know the one. The one that’s talking right now. Yep, while you read this. The one that’s talking to you about what you’re reading. What’s it saying? “Is this something you want to read right now?” “Is this important?” “Do I have time for this?” “Is this interesting?” “What’s that thing I’m supposed to do later?” “What time is it?” “Did I hear my phone ring?” “Does this apply to me?” “Do other people find this interesting?” “Does this person know what they’re talking about?” “What are they talking about?” “What did she just say?” “Voice in my head? What voice in my head?”
Yes, that one. It’s constantly talking, telling you what it thinks, judging what others are saying; judging if what they’re saying is important, or if what they’re saying is trivial, or worse, stupid. It’s judging everything going on around you. You see a homeless man begging for money, it tells you to cross the street or to think of how much money you have. You see someone you recognize in the distance. It tells you to cross the street or to think of how much time you have.
The voice has your grocery list, your to-do list, your schedule and your capital self-punishment list all on speed dial.
The voice does not speak in third person to let you know it’s a “voice.” No, it speaks in first person and has your accent. So it seems like it’s you. Except… sometimes it says things that you’ve heard your mother say, or you heard that professor, teacher or mentor that you so respected say to you once (or thrice). Sometimes it says things that remind you of your sister or brother, or that cousin you won’t speak to since he acted like a jackass at your wedding. Or worse, sometimes it sounds like a punishing, hard-assed contrarian who only wants to make your life a living hell. Sometimes.
What does this have to do with listening more fully in a conversation? Everything. It’s talking to you while you’re listening to a good friend, lover, workmate or relative in conversation. It’s running down your schedule, or telling you that they look terrible, or the ways in which they could sip their coffee better, or speak better, or tell their story better, or listen bette… Mmhmmm. It’s telling you things that are keeping you from being fully focused and engaged in the present moment. So, you have to practice “setting the voice aside.” You have to find a way to notice when it’s speaking and it is directing your attention elsewhere – especially when you know you want the other person to feel heard, to be known and to feel your love as a good friend, lover, spouse or family member; as you would if you were speaking.
The best way to catch the voice in the act? To simply allow it to speak whenever it does and, instead of engaging it, just observe it. In other words, notice it doing what it does but stay with your conversant’s voice. Yes, it’s mental multitasking. And with practice, just like walking when you were a toddler, it becomes easier and easier, and then, second nature. Besides the voice quiets more and more until it’s a whisper, almost silent.
New Practice: Practice being mindful of the voice in your head that continues to redirect your focus from the other person in the conversation to whatever is on your mind. Observe it. Don’t engage it. It has its own agenda, and that doesn’t allow you to be present in the moment.
Next, Emotions rise up when you hear the other person speak about something in particular. Now, this could be anything from you perk up when they mention a particular subject to you may get a little teary-eyed when they bring up someone you know to you get riled up whenever they talk about that incident from your shared history. Emotions are a varied bunch so we won’t narrow them down or hem them in.
Instead, we’ll let them out and let them do what they do best. (If your little voice said “run amok?,” you’ve got some work to do on your disconnected relationship with your emotions. They don’t run you if you don’t suppress them.) Allow them to express and listen to the story they have to say.
If your emotions are so overwhelming with this person that you find it difficult to listen to them, or to be in a conversation with them at all, then there’s something that must be said that has gone unsaid.
I find when I’ve suppressed something I want to say to someone – something I left unsaid with this person – it always leaves me aloof in my communication. My practice of telling someone what I have withheld (or am withholding) from them has become so commonplace for me that now my emotions immediately notify me if there’s something I’ve forgotten to tell, or to express to the other person. Or, in another instance, my emotions remind me if there’s something to deal with that didn’t get dealt with in our last interaction. Like, they said something diminishing of, or scolding toward me and it caught me off-guard – or blindsided me – so I didn’t bring it up then. Instead, I took time to assess what my feelings were and not allow the heat of the moment to carry me into a ditch. Or maybe, they didn’t communicate with me beforehand when they didn’t show up for our last date, appointment, or outing together and there was no apology or acknowledgement either. There are any number of other things that could be incomplete or unfinished business between us causing a rift within me that could – and will, over time – become a rift in my relationship if it continues to go unspoken.
New Practice: Communicate what needs to be communicated, otherwise it will cause a rift where you’re not intending a rift to be. Think of it this way: things that go unsaid and unresolved take up space and that space tends to grow deeper, vaster and become more and more difficult to confront as time passes. Practice saying what’s on your mind immediately and it will become easier and easier to do.
Okay, now… Last, Distractions! “What’s that shiny thing over there?” “Why hasn’t my phone rung in the last 5 minutes?” “Who is that texting me?” Don’t try to do a bunch of things while you’re talking to someone if the conversation you’re having is important to the other person. You would think this would go without saying, but alas, then this article would be a moot point. We often think to ourselves, “I’ll just look at my phone for a minute.” “This part of what they’re saying is not very interesting. They must know that.” “What does it matter if I look away … stare at that man … look at my phone …?”
It matters. You matter. They matter. Or they don’t, and then be honest. Communication is a function of love. Surprising that I said that? Think about it. When you have a great conversation, it brings you joy. You feel more connected, more vivid, and more alive. Be honest with yourself… You know if you don’t want to have a conversation. You know if you’d rather be somewhere else. You know if you’re not interested in a topic, or if you don’t want to talk right now. You know if you’re too busy with other things to…
We come to the last piece I promised at the outset of this article: one way to be straight about being distracted when you know there’s no other way you can be in the conversation. Be straight that you will not be fully present for or participatory in what they have to say to you, so can they please wait until a better time to have the conversation. If they cannot, then be straight that you have to forfeit the conversation altogether.
What use is the guilt and the shame if you could’ve forgone it by just being honest to begin with? What if you brought love to places where guilt and shame live instead?
Communication is about honesty. Guilt and shame can end up leaving us bereft of the ability to be open, flexible and straight in all of our communications. The little voice is talking, isn’t it? “What guilt? She keeps talking about guilt like we buy into that?” Oh, don’t we? Guilt that we don’t have enough time for others, guilt for not being there for others when they need us, guilt for saying the wrong thing, guilt for saying the right thing but too harshly, guilt for not opening our mouths and speaking up… And wherever guilt is, shame too resides. But, honestly, there is no need for either. Communication is best served with a confidence to trust that others will understand. And if they don’t understand, then that’s something to have a conversation about later for the sake of clarity. Guilt builds walls, whereas straight communication can lay foundations.
Here’s to you finding the will to be honest in the moments when you want to default to guilt or shame. Here’s to you finding the confidence to be straight when it seems to be unpopular with those you respect and have friendship with. Here’s to you finding the will to be you, even when you think you have no time to be that.
Here’s to you. And your little voice. May it find the whisper tone you want to hear it at next.
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