I was in conversation with two of my closest friends yesterday, and while I usually don’t face too many pushbacks (well, talking back) in the conversations I have with people, this particular time was a bit different. My one friend started a story, which she had told me privately before, and I interjected right away, changing the topic and essentially, diverting the attention back to myself. I was in no mood to waste her time, or mine.
Our other friend who was there subsequently interjected me mid-sentence, reminding me that she actually wanted to hear the story, and that I should remember that within our friendship group it is good to ‘share the floor’ from time to time. Ouch. “We all give each other time to tell our stories and share,” she said very calmly and patiently, but naturally, this made me realise that I may be in a phase where I am diverting a lot of attention back towards myself. I immediately recalled a few recent conversations where I had changed the topic and rattled off about my own life — perhaps an after effect of the underlying (subtle) anxiety I am feeling about the changes in my career, or perhaps, I’m just going through a phase of being more self absorbed than usual. This is something I work hard to keep in check, but I’ll leave those thoughts for my therapist’s office.
What struck me the most from reflecting on this particular incident was, in fact, a realisation of what a good listener this friend who interjected me was. Out of all my marble jar friends (people who keep adding to the trust jar, according to Brene Brown) she is perhaps the one who I know the “least” about in the conventional sense. She is the one who I haven’t heard as much about her past, or perhaps, who usually is an ear to me and others, rather than being someone who is allowed to lean on her friends 50/50. I think both parties have to acknowledge when this happens, whether that is in a friendship or a relationship, gradually adjusting and working harder to steer the ship out of the rumble strip.
Upon further reflection I realised that in most of my close relationships, I have recently started to veer more into a direction of voicing an opinion loudly and in somewhat of a steamrolling fashion, rather than sitting back, and practicing the art (and skill) of active listening. I’ve also experienced this in a new relationship I have entered into, where often, I find myself interjecting during his stories, and I am trying to be more mindful of this, as, in fact, we are still getting to know each other and I like hearing more about his life and world view.
So how do you become a better listener? As I’ve mentioned, I believe that it is a practiced skill. The first step, is not interrupting someone when they are speaking. This can be hard, especially if you’re addressing a fairly stimulating topic, or one that you may feel you have some kind of expertise in. I find myself feeling like I know a little bit about everything, well… all the time. It’s not always a good look for the people around me and it is somewhat of a source of shame for me. What I’ve learned, through the teachings of other philosophers and motivational speakers, is that it’s all about becoming the learner, not the knower. You cannot possibly believe that you know a little bit about everything, or even a lot about anything. If you approach every conversation armed with an idea that you want to learn something, rather than forcing your opinion, you’ll not only learn more, but in my experience, you also find that you will be asked your opinion a lot more as well.
By paying attention through active listening, you also pick up on the finer details of what someone is saying: essentially, you listen to understand. This implies hearing what the person is saying on the surface, and what they may actually be saying. “You need to practice listening more to others” is a direct message to me, of course, but viewed differently, I pondered whether perhaps this friend of mine wasn’t feeling heard in our friendship (or group), and that she may also be longing to have her opinion heard more, be it because of this particular aspect of her life, work or even her home life. So, the next time someone says something to you, better yet, the next time someone says something malevolent to you, take a second to consider that it could in fact be hiding some sort of a deeper issue they could be working through. I don’t think this was necessarily the case with my friend, who wasn’t malevolent in her approach, but we all face people in our days who do make it a bit harder to express their opinions with kindness and empathy.
Actively listening to someone else when they are spending time with you, and holding back on giving your opinion until they have expressed themselves is a courtesy that I like to compare to an old African proverb I read about once, which essentially says “I see you — I am here”. I want all the people in my inner circle (and even just those acquaintances who pop in and out of your life) to feel seen, and to believe that I am there with them and present in the moment. This is at the core of true connection for me, and a skill that I definitely could do with practicing a little bit more. So here’s my goal for the next few weeks: sit back, and listen to the stories of others. Take note of what they’re saying, and what they’re implying by what they’re saying. Enjoying learning from others. Remember that you are not the centre of the universe, and that we all have something to teach each other. I’ll be sure to report back on how this went in a future blog post, not because I’m trying to be fancy, but because I realise I need to be held accountable too. I’m really thankful to my friend for reminding me to be a better listener, and in essence, it has allowed us to connect on a deeper level. It also never hurts to have somebody spill some truth tea on you, especially if it is someone who you respect and value. I’m grateful for the reminder.
– Conrad was here.