Every day we see and experience examples of the challenges in civil discourse. I believe our challenges in the public sphere reveal how our ability to be in relationship with each other has broken down.
Do you feel like you are a good listener? Could you be better?
Think back to the last time you heard (or said, or thought), “I can’t listen to this any more.”
What can trigger you to stop listening? Not simply to tune out, but to actively stop, to shut down the conversation?
What I’ve noticed is that, for most folks, there’s some kind of problem with the other person. They have become interminably wrong, and they aren’t keeping that wrongness to themselves.
Perhaps they are an employee who is resisting some change, refusing to get on board and go along with the plan.
Perhaps they are a peer (or worse, your boss, or even worse, an employee) giving you feedback about how you’re doing your job.
Maybe they are a neighbor with political views or religious beliefs you can’t tolerate.
Maybe they are just your spouse, rattling on about their boring hobby or pasttime.
When you reach that point of being DONE, just done listening, you might literally shut it down, actually articulate your unwillingness or inability to listen.
Maybe you pretend to listen.
Most of the time, unless someone is walking away, what I’ve noticed is that most of us try to fix “them” and their wrongness.
What’s your style? Do you walk away? Somehow get them to stop talking? Sit and seethe while they keep talking anyway? Or do you try to get them to change?
We can become so obsessed about changing them and how wrong they are. (Okay, that’s not just me, right?) And the more we think about how wrong they are, and how they should be different, the more we drive ourselves up a wall.
I come by this habit honestly. Changing others’ beliefs and behavior was kind of a family tradition. I didn’t rebel against this until I was in college. When I started moving away from Mom’s way of doing things she started focusing her energy on changing me, I returned the favor. Her beliefs and behavior were never good enough for me.
I could not listen. I just couldn’t. Usually I would fight back to tell her how wrong she was.
It wasn’t until she was on her death bed that she really accepted that changing me was a waste of energy. By that time, I had been trying to let go of the idea of changing her for about a year or so. But, even then and since her passing, I’ve still had a tendency to wish she’d been different.
Some of the things that have helped me to let go of this need for her to be different have been practices of empathy from Nonviolent Communication, practices of self-compassion, simple practices of being present and letting go of the triggers, and challenging my own assumptions that anything “has to be” any particular way.
While I would probably have had very positive results in my relationship with my mother if I’d started doing these things earlier, I am noticing that these practices are having a positive impact on my life and working relationships in other ways.
I’ve become able to listen even when I don’t think we agree. I’ve become much more skilled in setting aside the immediate judgments and evaluations that might come to mind. This allows me to stay curious and find out whether we actually disagree that much.
In places where I operate as a member of a hierarchy, I have become less controlling and less bound by others’ expectations of me.
In places where I operate as a coach, partner, or consultant, I have become less defensive when “their” way of thinking is different from my own. In fact, I’ve become much more able to try learning how they think, what their definitions are, whether or not the problems I am perceiving are real problems, and how they deal with those problems if they even exist.
What I often learn is that our perspectives are not actually so different. What seemed to be an irreconcilable difference was, more than anything, an illusion. With some simple exploration, sharing perspectives, and curiosity, agreement can simply fall into place. And nobody has “changed,” although perhaps both of us have shifted a little.
Bottom line, I believe we can practice believing that, “Maybe this isn’t important.” We can decide not to take the objection or disagreement so seriously. It’s possible to be together, to maintain the relationship. To listen.
You can listen when you release the suffering you experience when you are busy taking responsibility for someone else’s thoughts. You can then embrace the joy of connection with that person, and you will discover commonality in the context of authentic relationships. You can unleash motivation. You can nurture the relationship.
As I consider how this approach will impact my own relationships, I don’t think it will work for everyone. Well, for some people, this approach will make me a much better listener, partner, volunteer, and coach. For others, it might make me a very boring target. I think I can live with that.
What about you? What have you learned about how to stay in relationship with people and actually listen even when there’s disagreement? Is this important in a business context? Leave me a comment below and share your experience and perspective!