While many of us listen, few of us understand one another.
How many conversations do you usually have on a daily basis? Every single day our brains are interpreting hundreds of sounds on several different frequencies, processing and storing noises for us to utilize or discard. Spoken words, taps on a keyboard, trees rustling from the wind, dogs barking and cars driving by are all things that we take in without trying to. Not only are we listening to everything that is going on around us, we are also listening to our own thoughts. When we communicate with others, we first make split second decisions of what to say or do by communicating with ourselves.
My whole life seems to have been full of misinterpretations and wrong understandings. When people are talking to me directly, I often listen to what I think they said, which leads to a misunderstanding. Sometimes, people will say things that remind me of something, and my mind will go off on a tangent, thinking about the memory, and thus I lose presence in the conversation. This is a constant battle with being present, being aware of what is going on. It is human nature to think about past or future as our ego develops. Children always seem to be in the present moment, regardless of what they are doing. It is this focus and attention on the current moment, this sense of awareness, that I think is crucial to having healthy relationships with others as well as ourselves.
Right now, you are having an inner dialogue, deciding whether or not you enjoy these words, instantaneously choosing one side or the other. The thing is, we have no idea where our decisions come from. We may have good reasoning to suggest why we chose option A over all the rest, and we could debate for hours on why that decision was made; much of our media reports on how they feel about others decisions. Many people do not try to fathom the possibility of being able to consciously decide every single moment. This post is here to suggest how this is possible, and not as difficult as it sounds.
How do we misinterpret one another, and at what point do we go wrong?
Most of the time, it seems like people have a response to what I have to say before I am finished talking. The funny part is that I do the same thing. I have noticed with my girlfriend, that we have discussions about things that bother us, whether it may be about each other or something else happening out in the world, I usually would like to respond to something she has said within her first two sentences (On a side note, saying what is on my mind regardless of whether it is my turn, and this habit of interrupting has been an issue for me throughout my life. Luckily, I am improving more and more every day). But why do I do this?
Why is that? I am more focused on being able to share something, being able to contribute back or just get something out, rather than finish hearing what she (or anyone else) has to say. Another thing that I have just now noticed, is that while writing this article, I communicating with myself in a sort of journaling process, as well as communicating with people on the web. I just got up from my computer to get a snack, and if this were a face to face conversation, it would have been as if I had walked out mid sentence. Luckily, this is not. But the habit remains, and it raises the question, why is prolonged communication so difficult?
A thought I get as I ask myself this question deals with the attention span of children. Generally speaking, a 3-4-year-old child can sit still in a restaurant for a good 30-40 minutes. Any time after that and they start to get antsy and agitated at a lack of stimulation that interests them. As adults, we tend to have a longer attention span, but there is still a reason that high school and college classes are the lengths that they are; we start to lose interest. With that being said, what happens during a mere 5-minute conversation?
Looking back to where I mentioned my mind going off on a tangent during the first few sentences, I notice the excitement comes up. I feel excited that I can relate to what the person I am talking with is saying. This is where emotions come into play with our actions. I have already talked about how we can only control our behavior, not our emotions. This may raise some controversy, but I feel that while it may be difficult, it is not impossible.
Often times, our emotions coincide with our actions. Even in moments when we do not particularly feel anything, we still are doing some sort of action. In moments of feeling bored, our minds tend to wander, in moments of happiness, we may shake or speak rapidly out of joy. On the other end of the spectrum, in moments of anger or sadness, we may lash out or cry. These feelings are natural, and something that would be futile trying to control. These emotions that we feel in turn affect our actions, and communicating with one another always requires an action, i.e. speaking.
See where I am going with this yet?
Two sides of the same coin: we’re both right and are each a majority of one.
When our emotions get involved with our actions, we tend to listen to them instead of what others are saying. Is this selfish? Maybe, but when we all have the tendency to do it, it may be more of a genetic issue. Our emotions are triggered by what the person is saying, and we respond to our emotions, rather than staying present and focused on the conversation. When this happens, we are now listening to respond, instead of listening to understand. I will explain an exercise below that we all should practice in order to become better listeners.
Since growing up involves developing an ego, our ego gets attached to our emotions. Therefore when something happens that creates a rise in one emotion or another, the next happening is a semi-automated response in part to that emotion. As we age, these responses generally harden, meaning that the quote by Warren Buffet “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken” has deep meaning to it.
If we can learn to distinguish our actions from our emotions, without separating or hiding from our emotions through our actions, we have a much better chance of being malleable and adaptable to any given situation. In the martial arts school that I am apart of, the full-blown teaching of reacting to any given situation does not come to the second degree of black belt: 6 years into it. This is so each student has a solid foundation of muscle memory that we can draw from in split second decision making. Applying this concept to communication involves an honest and respecting understanding of our own emotions, as well as personality.
With this being said, as our ego develops and we form our bias about the world, we have to remember that at the end of the day, our opinion is exactly that; we are entitled to it, but when we push our beliefs onto others, especially without their asking (another characteristic that I have gotten better at being aware of and changing), situations can easily become heated. We can learn to agree to disagree, respect one another’s opinions, and see the world as a cooperative place, rather than competitive. Of course, both perspectives have their place, and when it comes down to it, this is just my opinion. 🙂
The hardest thing we will ever do: understanding one another is far from impossible.
So we have noticed that communication between one another is somewhat difficult in even the simplest of conversations. Although we have come a long way from cave paintings and grunts of disapproval from the “aristocracy” to “peasants”, (we are all just human beings), we still have a lot of work to do. As far as learning to distinguish our emotions from our actions, I think of a story in the book that I just reviewed, Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Dan’s mentor, Socrates, mentions one morning that one of his close friends, who Dan had only recently gotten to know, passed away. Dan is baffled by Socrates’ lack of sadness, and after a moment, Soc spoke with affection, but not sorrow.
“For now, just think of death as a transformation—a bit more radical than puberty, but nothing to get particularly upset about. It’s just one of the body’s changes. When it happens, it happens. The warrior neither seeks death nor flees from it.” With this in mind, it seems important to note that we cannot control our emotions, but over time, we can decide how we react to our emotions. When we master this, we are able to always show forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and acceptance. Being able to confidently and stably communicate our emotions through conscious actions is crucial.
In this process of understanding one another, our own emotions, as well as how to deal with them, having patience is the only way to make progress. This is not an opinion that I have created, but adapted from the words of people and books that have influenced me, such as the ones mentioned above, as well as the Tao Te Ching, Buddhism, Alan Watts (the link attached to “consciously decide” in the third paragraph) mentors and my life, and through trial and error of my own experience. When I rush through a conversation or am impatient with those close to me, it has never ended in a way either of us would like. Part of the process is failing, and from time to time, I continue to do this. But I have seen progress, when I choose my words carefully, slow down, and trust my instincts. This is where patience has been very effective, as well as healing.
One way I have found at becoming better at communicating is when I am listening to someone speak, I make it a habit to say in my mind what they are saying so that I am internally repeating their words. Then, when I speak, I repeat some of what they have said or, say what they have said back to them in the form of a question, asking if I heard them correctly. It is true that people will get annoyed with this after a while, and they may think that in fact, I am not listening. But doing it once or twice not only helps me understand what they are trying to convey better, it also keeps me focused and involved in their message. Here is a video outlining this process.
This article is by no means a guidebook or instruction manual. At 20 years old, I am far from mastering the art of communication. I have a lot to learn. Writing this process out has brought clarity to my own mechanisms of interacting with others, and my hope is that it can do the same for you. As always, I am speaking from my personal experiences, and have quoted others when necessary. What I say or do may not work for others, and it is important that you as the reader decides what is best for you.
I would love to hear what you have to say about your listening process, or any stories you may have. Feel free to leave a question or comment down below, I am always willing and open to learning about new perspectives. Have a wonderful day!