Ever since I can remember, there has been a small wooden plaque hanging on the wall inside of my family cabin with the following phrase painted on it:
“You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when you’re talkin”
Boy, ain’t that the truth?
The truth contained in those simple words hit me like ton of bricks today when I was sitting in the living room with my mom – attempting to mentally focus long enough to record a new podcast – and I gradually became aware that a few subtle waves of anxiety had begun sweeping over me. I also noticed that the chatter between my mom and myself had tapered off and we were both rather engrossed in whatever it was we were watching/reading/doing at that moment.
I’m not exaggerating at all when I say my mom and I never seem to run out of things to ramble and blabber on about; so it certainly didn’t take me long to notice the direct correlation between the silent gaps in our conversation and the onset of my feelings of anxiousness. Furthermore, as I was becoming more aware of this correlation, I also found myself doing and saying mindless little things in order to try and fill some of the silence.
What Was it About the Silence that Made Me Uneasy?
I consider myself a fairly mindful person; I practice meditation and mindfulness daily, and I also make it a conscious point to check-in with myself several times throughout the day to ensure my focus is in the present. So you could imagine at this point I was a bit disturbed by the fact I had to admit to myself that the silence made me feel slightly uneasy. Additionally, it bothered me that I was unable to pinpoint anything specific about the intermittent silence that caused my feelings of unease. The only theory I could come up with boiled down to the fact that my brain had somehow become hard-wired in such a way that silence was associated with inaction and stagnation.
So the next logical thing to do I suppose, was to focus some of the blame towards one of The Collective’s favorite scapegoats: Society.
All sarcasm aside, it’s no real secret that the majority of today’s technologically advanced societies have adopted the philosophy that in order to achieve success, one needs to be “10 steps ahead of the competition.” Most of us remain convinced that instead of staying focused entirely in the present, we should always be looking ahead into the future and to some extent, be planning our next move. While it can be argued that maintaining this mindset has the potential to yield the occasional positive outcome here and there, it can be guaranteed that negative thoughts, behavioral patterns and/or beliefs will develop in at least one aspect(s) of a person’s life. One of the aspects that most commonly suffers a negative impact is the area of Interpersonal Communications.
Negative Impacts on Interpersonal Communication Skills
If you were able to look through someone else’s eyes and observe yourself engaged in a meaningful conversation with another person, there is a good chance that you would notice at least one of you experiencing a fairly high level of difficulty just being present. Instead of giving your undivided attention and not just hearing but actively listening to what the other person is saying, we find our minds have the natural tendency to start thinking ahead in order to begin formulating our next response. This is because believe it or not, the ability to be fully present in a conversation is a skill that very rarely comes naturally and often must be learned and practiced.
This learned skill of being fully present in conversation is so admirable and difficult to master because not only does one have to go against societal influence and conditioning to master it, they must also be able to suppress the ego. In conversation, the ego can be one of our worst enemies. Here are a few examples of how the ego manifests during interpersonal communication and can make others feel like you’re (to be quite blunt) a self-centered and shitty listener:
- Interrupting the other person
- Feeling the need to always “add-value” (aka put your two cents in)
- Thinking ahead to your reply/response to what the other person is saying while they are in the middle of speaking
- Disconnected or walled-off body language
- Checking your phone or watch mid-conversation
- Feeling the need to always give an example of how “you can relate”
How These Habits Can Make the Other Person Feel
I’m no saint when it comes to presence in conversation, and I’ve been guilty of all of the above behaviors at more than one point in my life. But I’ve also spent a lot of time experiencing conversations from the other side of the active listening spectrum and let me tell you…it can make you feel pretty damn frustrated, insecure and unimportant! When you are demonstrating any of the “shitty listener” habits listed above, here are some of the ways that the other person (or people) involved in conversation with you might be made to feel:
- The other person is disrespecting and belittling you
- Your time isn’t as valuable as the other person’s
- You are being invalidated because the other person had an experience similar to yours, but your particular experience isn’t quite as interesting or exciting.
- Nothing you contribute to the conversation is unique – other people have already “been there, done that.”
- You aren’t as knowledgeable as others
- You should hurry up and get to the point – limit the amount of time you speak, because people become easily bored and disinterested with what you have to contribute to a conversation
- Everything you say is already being judged before you can completely verbalize it.
- No one ever actually intended to listen to what you had to say to begin with
- The other person is unwilling to open up to allowing themselves to feel any vulnerability
If that list triggered any memories of instances during which you were made to feel those ways, reading through the list may have stirred up some feelings of empathy which probably stung at least a little. Well here’s the good news: you can start making changes to your negative communication habits immediately! And in doing so, not only will you develop much deeper and more authentic connections with the people in your life, you might actually learn something new!
So last but not least, here are a few tips to help you become a more present listener so that you can get the most value out of (and bring the most value to) any future conversations:
Tips for Being More Present Listeners
- Stop formulating your responses while others are still speaking! This one is huge -and will take a lot of practice, but improving in this area is rewarding on so many levels.
- Become more aware of when you are passing judgements in your head about what the other person is saying and STOP IT.
- Maintain eye contact and be conscious of not allowing your body language to become closed off or defensive. You may also try mirroring the body language of the other person in order to achieve additional levels of connection.
- Keep phones, computers, televisions, and radios out of sight and out of mind
- Sometimes relating is encouraging and validating, but try to avoid urges to always feel the need to share a story that proves how you can relate, or that demonstrates your knowledge on the subject matter; as this can often come off as condescending or give the impression you are trying to “one-up” the other person.
- Don’t interrupt! No matter how obvious this may seem, it is often the most difficult habit to kick.
- Let go of the feelings of needing to fill the silence. If there are periods where neither person has anything to say that’s ok! Sometimes just sitting back and letting what’s already been said sink in can have the most profound outcome and even result in a whole new source of inspiration.
I hope through this post I was able to shed light on some of the negative communication habits we as a society have developed. My intent is not to make you feel bad in any way, but it is to hopefully empower you in ways which will allow you to establish deeper connections with people and maybe…just maybe…learn something new!
Love and Light,