I did it again.
Last night, our friend Viktorie hosted a wonderful dinner party for our Nelson gang. I was thrilled to see (almost) all of our Nelson buddies together in one place and was reminded of just why this little city has held Prez and I in place for so long—a Herculean task, given our nomadic history. Catching up seemed the order of the evening, and I did do some of that, but what I found myself doing much more often was… TALKING!
Maybe it’s the amount of time I spend alone that drives me to spew words when I am unleashed upon the outside world? Maybe I love the spotlight too much? Maybe I’m afraid of silence? I don’t know. Whatever it is that drives me to talk loud and long, it is not something I can easily control.
But it’s not just the talking, it’s the lack of listening. Even when I do manage to shut my big trap, it is difficult for me to listen. I mean really, really listen.
It was a shocking and sad day when I realized I was not a good listener. I’d always passed that off as Prez’s flaw. He was the aggressive speaker who would cut off or interrupt without remorse. He was the one who couldn’t recall important details from conversations that I would later fill in. Me? I was the good listener. Gold stars for me!
Except that wasn’t true.
It was while I was listening to an episode of CBC radio’s DNTO one afternoon that the ugly truth slapped my mouth shut. Host Sook-Yin Lee was talking to John Francis, a man who had been silent for seventeen years of his life. By choice. In his explanation for the seventeen years of non-speaking, Francis noted that one of the things he realized about himself was that he had not been listening during conversations. He had an idea of what the other person was going to say, he would fast forward, he would compose his thoughts and formulate his response. In other words, his focus was entirely on what he was thinking and what he was going to say next.
That was the sound of my internal record player needle scratching across the album of my consciousness.
That’s what I do.
Oh, wow. What a horrible truth.
That’s what I do.
That’s what I do.
Do other people notice? How does it make them feel?
Since that day, I have made a sincere—though admittedly sporadic—effort to be a better listener. I try not to let long pauses prompt me to speak up. I try to shut off my brain while other people are speaking and devote my energy to their words and only their words. I have tried to absorb words instead of letting them flow over me like exhaled breath.
I’m getting better. I have a long way to go. Sometimes I need a kick in the pants. Today I Googled “bad listener” and combed through the results. One page was particularly damning. Of the Eight Habits of Lousy Listeners, I think I have seven. Blerg.
Lousy listeners are planning how they will respond even while you are speaking. They are so busy rehearsing their reply that they miss part of your message and don’t catch the nuances of your communication. They’re ready with a paragraph before you’ve even completed a sentence.
~ Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.
Why? This is the question that rolls over and over through my head. Why am I a bad listener? It isn’t as if I don’t care about people. I do. It’s not that I’m not interested in learning. I am. It isn’t even that I lack patience. I don’t. So what makes my own thoughts take precedence?
Perhaps it is because there are so many thoughts inside my head at any given time. I wake up thinking. From the moment I slip from sleep to waking reality, my brain kicks into high gear. From the mundane (Remember to book a dentist appointment for Prez) to the sublime (Is the universe truly infinite?) it’s rush hour on the Princess Thought Highway. At night, I have learned to funnel the thoughts into story form—my adult version of a bedtime story—to keep away the insomnia that has often plagued me. Even in sleep, there’s no silence. My dreams are vivid and intense; they bleed into real life as soon as I awake.
For writing fiction, this thought-overload is awesome. I have never known writer’s block. If anything, my problem is the frustration of knowing I will not be physically capable of telling all the stories in my head. I’m baffled by bloggers who struggle for subject matter—trust me, I could post ten Coconut Chronicles a day.
I won’t. Don’t panic.
Knowing this, perhaps it should not be all that surprising that the stuff in my head would verbally flood out into the real world at any opportunity. But I don’t want to be that person.
What I have found is that when I do really listen, I become a better friend, I become a better citizen, I become a better leader, and so on. I even become a better writer. Real listening increases my understanding of my world and the people in it. Real listening deepens my empathy. Real listening builds trust. These, and all the other side effects of real listening, are all things I strive for.
So here’s the deal. If you know me in real life, and we’re talking, and I start spewing, feel free to touch me on the arm and say “Princess, time to listen.” I promise I will. I promise I will stop whatever I am saying and listen to you. Really listen.
Well, depending on how many martinis I’ve swigged. This promise is definitely not gin-proof. Sorry.
I’m not going to give up on this. I will become a good listener.
Until next week, I hope this finds you healthy, happy, and lovin’ life!