*updated as of October 24, 2021*
It’s terrible, isn’t it? Come on… admit it. Feel the feels.
When we’re talking to someone and they’re not listening…? We find ourselves feeling disappointed. By the conversation. Maybe frustrated with the person. Sometimes even angered, or outraged. Especially if what we’re talking about is important to us in that moment, and…
Are you serious?!?! They’re not listening. Well, read below…
The other person is not present and engaged? It’s terrible! This just happened to me… I can still feel how it felt. Empty, lonely and awful. And that’s what I didn’t want to admit, but that’s the truth when I look at it.
Now, if you’re reading this, you are consciously wanting to take new steps to listen more fully and be more present in all of your conversations. This is the very situation you are wanting to avoid. Over the past years, this article has been one of the most read of all the articles published here. I continue to update it to reflect our ever-evolving humanity.
I don’t think we reckon, often enough, with the gap between our experience of when people don’t listen to us and how often we don’t listen to others. If you’re reading this, you are wanting to confront straight-on that change in how you listen and where we all can begin is by looking dead-in-the-face how much we don’t listen.
We begin there, mostly because in confronting how much we don’t listen we can begin to build compassion for ourselves and, in turn, for others. It’s okay to admit you don’t listen. I admitted it long ago to myself, and I continue to make this embarrassing confession — I don’t listen. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a part of being human. Attention wanes but moreover, our thoughts distract us – much of which has nothing to do with the other person – and feelings get hurt. Which can cause a kerfuffle that we did not intend and completely derail us, our conversations and our relationships.
Communication is a learned art frankly, and we’re all constantly evolving our communication styles. So here’s some guidance regarding this particular desire.
Communication is a learned art frankly.Tweet
We all get distracted in conversation. F*k, we all get distracted in most things we do, but how we respond to the distraction will make a huge difference in the quality of our relationships.
Here are 3 ways to listen more fully in any conversation.
Plus I’ll give you one way to be straight about being distracted when you know that you cannot be present given your circumstances in that moment. There is relief in telling your truth. Here’s to us all finding new ways to be easy and find relief from the guilt, shame and embarrassment so that we can release these feelings and be present.
Distractions. Ahhh, distractions… Well, when we speak of distractions we are normally speaking about catalysts outside of us in the physical world. However, these are not the only distractions. So we’ll leave physical distractions for last. Right now, let’s tackle the distractions we don’t realize are in our midst.
First up, that little Voice you hear while others are talking.
You may think, What little voice? I have no little voices in my head. That sounds crazy?
Yep, that one. The one that just said that. The one that’s talking. right. now. Telling you that this… Well, what is it saying exactly? Maybe… “Is this something you want to read?” “What the f*k is this?” “Is this really a thing? A little voice?” “I thought that was mentally ill?” “I don’t have that!” “Do I have time for this?” “Is this interesting?” “What time is it?” “Is my phone ringing?” “Does this person know what they’re talking about?” “Voice in my head? What voice in my head?”
Yes, that one. It’s constantly chatting, 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 cash you have that you could give. You see someone you recognize in the distance. It tells you to cross the street or to think of how much time you can mete out for what looks like an impromptu conversation you may not want to have.
The voice has your grocery list, your to-do list, your schedule and your self-flagellation list all on speed dial.
The voice does not speak in the third person to let you know it’s a “voice.” No, it speaks in the first person and has your accent. So it seems like it’s you. Except… sometimes it says things that your mother said, or that professor or mentor from college said. Sometimes it says things that remind you of your sister or brother, or that cousin you no longer 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?
That voice is talking to you, and now you’re no longer listening to your lover, your good friend, your colleague, your relative or your teammate. You’re listening to the voice. It could be running down your schedule and your attention to this person in front of you is waning. And now, because the voice has an audience, it has commenced to judging the person you’re speaking to. Maybe it’s judging how they look, that they could sip their coffee silently, that they could speak better or even tell their story better, or better yet, listen better to you. Mmmm… silence.
It’s talking and you’re listening, and your attention to your conversation is waning. But the little voice…? It has full court.
And when it decides it has a rebuttal even before the other person is finished talking, you give it a voice and cut them off. Communication quality is sliding. Maybe like silt into a hole in the beach sand, or more like a whole city block into a sinkhole.
What can you do? Practice “observing the voice.” You can’t know there is a voice, until you can distinguish it from your own. Find a way to notice when the little voice is having its say, and it wants to hold your full attention. It can because it has. Whatever it has done in the past, it will try to do again and again. It’s pure habit. Create a new habit… begin practicing “setting it aside.” This practice is not easy at first, no habit is easy to create but you can master it.
This all requires a willingness to simply observe yourself, your mind and listen while the tapes play (that’s little voice airtime). You can practice this especially if you want your conversations to be richer, if you want the person you’re speaking to to feel heard, to be known and to feel your love.
The best way to catch the “voice” in the act? To simply allow it to “air” whenever it does and, instead of engaging it – listening to it and allowing it to take over your mouth with its grievances, its judgments, its annoyances, its possible pettiness – just observe it and listen as you would to the radio. In other words, notice it doing what it does but stay with the voice of the person. Yes, it. is. mental. multitasking. And with practice, just like walking and chewing gum at the same time, it becomes easier and easier. At some point, it can become second nature. And good news! The voice does quiet more and more with ongoing observance and non-engagement.
New Practice: Practice being mindful of the voice in your mind 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 agenda doesn’t allow you to be present in the moment.
Next… You notice your emotions rise up when you hear the other person speak about something in particular. Now, this can be anything from you perk up when they inspire you to you get a little teary-eyed when they bring up someone or something familiar to you get riled up whenever they talk about that thing that you can’t stand. 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. No, this does not mean act them out on the other person. That is not your emotional self at its best. (If your little voice said “run amok?,” then there’s some work you can do on your possibly disconnected relationship with your emotions. Emotions cannot “run” you, but if you suppress them they will persist. What you resist persists.) Allow your emotions to tell you the story they want to tell.
There are a few tells that your emotions can have for you. The first is if there is something unsaid between you and the other person. If your emotions nag at you a little, then it might be time to share what you have been unwilling to say out loud. Maybe it’s your disappointment in the shirking of a date or meeting. Maybe it’s something the person said that offended you, or worse, diminished you. Maybe it’s the fact that they overlooked your feelings multiple times and the accumulation of your hurt and pain can languish no longer. Maybe your feelings are so overwhelming when you’re with this person that you find it difficult to even just listen to them (this has happened to me), and now is the time to say what you need to say or let the friendship die a thousand deaths.
I find when I’ve suppressed something I have to say – something I left unsaid because it was painful, or I was fearful of their reaction – it always leaves me aloof in my communication. This suppression derails my communication and can even – when I’m not fully conscious of what’s unsaid – turn me toward negative emotion and a need to unleash it on the unsuspecting friend, family member, business associate or partner. Now, I practice saying my peace. It is sometimes embarrassing. It is mostly uncomfortable, and it is often misunderstood, at first. Different communication styles provide challenges.
But my commitment to communication as a practice in love keeps me in the midst until there is understanding. And my practice, if it is to be successful, must be one of “sharing” and not of “accusation.” Otherwise, it’s just more of the emotion that has been suppressed. So sometimes I have to wait a day or two. Some folks don’t like this because their communication style says, “Confront in the moment.” But my emotions don’t allow for settled communication in the moment. For me, I feel blindsided and that brings with it a whole level of anxiety that takes a day or two to settle. (And this may not be your experience. For you, the “in-the-moment” communication style might work for you. You must do what works best for you. And don’t pressure yourself into a communication style that doesn’t work for you. If you need time, take it.) In my case, I then have to provide a foundation upon which to come to an understanding one day or more later. I must have compassion for myself if someone else is to share in that compassion. And we often do. I can’t tell you that every challenge will be a win, but I can tell you practice makes for peace.
Incomplete or unfinished business between us causes rifts in ourselves that have unconscious consequences like less than stellar conversations, and more dire consequences of love lost. These rifts can – and will, over time – become a rift in our relationship if what is unsaid, but deeply felt, continues to go unspoken.
New Practice: Communicate what needs to be communicated, otherwise it will cause a rift in your relationship. Think of it this way: things that go unsaid and unresolved take up space and that divide will grow deeper, vaster and become more and more difficult to confront as time passes (never impassable but seemingly impossible). Practice saying what’s on your mind immediately, or as soon as you can in a settled manner. It will, over time, become easier and easier to do.
Okay, now… Lastly, Distractions!
“What’s that shiny thing over there?” “Why hasn’t my phone rung in the last 5 minutes?” “Who is that texting me?” Physical distractions obviously take us out of conversations. Don’t try to multi-task 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 really don’t, and then just be honest. Communication, great communication, is purely a function of love. Surprising? 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 actually know if you don’t want to have a conversation. You know if you’re not willing to hear someone out. You know if you’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else. You know if you’re not interested in a particular topic, or if you don’t want to talk just right this moment. You know if you’re too busy… and on and on.
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 upfront that you have to forfeit the conversation altogether.
What use is the negative emotion about it if you could’ve forgone it by just being honest at the start? What if you brought love to places where guilt and shame reside?
Communication is about honesty. Guilt, shame and other negative emotions 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?”
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 too for the sake of clarity. Guilt builds walls, whereas straight communication can lay foundations for ease.
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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