The Art of Listening 3: The Pain of Listening

In the two previous installments we established that most people don’t listen to anyone. We talked about the three categories of non-listening: the Conversational Dictator, the Serial Monologist and the Judge.

In this post we will talk about the art of actually listening. If you are like me and most other people, there is one surefire sign that you are listening to someone: it is a feeling of discomfort, a feeling almost of pain.

This is because most of us are chiefly ego-driven. As mentioned in the first installment of this series, the ego is all about identity. In fact the ego is a collection of ideas about who you are.

The consequence of being ego-driven is that most of us seek to reduce the universe to fit into our story about ourselves. It is common human behaviour to reference everything to ourselves.

How can this influence the way we act in the world? Well, if you want to accomplish something big, something that might take a lot of time, effort and patience, then you probably won’t succeed if you take every little setback personally.

This can range from “I got a rejection from a literary agent. I’m obviously not meant to be a writer” to “My favourite TV show just came on. So the universe wants me to stay here on the couch instead of working on my novel.”

On the surface the first one is hard and the second one is soft. But essentially they are the same: a lack of belief in oneself paradoxically combined with an exaggerated feeling of self-importance.

The fallacy here is that a literary agent’s taste or your favourite TV show coming on has nothing to do with your decision to succeed at writing. This is obvious if you think about it – and yet it is common human behaviour to reference unrelated events to ourselves.

There is a clear parallel to that in conversations: someone says something, and our ego immediately creates a story about what that means about who we are.

The problem with this approach is that it was someone else who said something. We are used to our own thoughts being self-directed, so it is natural to assume that when someone else says something they are also talking about you.

Wrong. They were probably not talking about you; most likely they were talking about themselves, directly or indirectly, since at the end of the day they too are self-directed. Most people’s favourite subject is themselves.

So not only does listening entail listening to someone else; it also entails listening to a story that has little if any connection with you.

This is painful because the ego habit of referencing everything to ourselves has carved very deep pathways in our brain. It is a situation very close to addiction: staying in the comfort zone of ego chatter is like a cigarette or a safety blanket, because it protects us from being present to the moment.

Your brain is programmed to keep you alive and sane. You survived up till now and you are relatively well-functioning. So the way your brain sees it, if it ain’t broken why fix it? If you try to leave your comfort zone and open your eyes to a wider reality, your brain will tell you to stop. The way it does this is by feeding you negative emotions.

This is why you see people fidgeting, looking at their phones or getting distracted  by a host of unrelated thoughts when put in a situation where they are expected to listen. It takes energy, positivity and courage to make that leap of faith and to begin to form new neural pathways. Not everyone has this.

When I say that not everybody has this, I don’t mean that either you were born with this ability or not; I mean that you may or may not have it in this moment. Everyone can build up the energy, positivity and courage to make a change. It depends on your habits, and habit can be changed and honed.

But that is for a future post.