Why We Don’t Listen

By David Cornfield, Creative Edge

My old pal Harry and I are walking in the park, improvising like two jazz musicians – except we’re playing with words not melodies.  He throws out a line.  I have a comeback.  He does a riff on my response.  Pretty soon we’re laughing so hard we’re crying.  Eventually we collapse, exhausted, on a park bench.

“That was amazing, Harry,” I say, “Why don’t we do it more often?”

I’m just being social, not really expecting a response, but Harry takes my question seriously.  He leans closer, lowering his voice, like he’s confiding in me.

“I’ll tell you why not.  Improvising the way we just did calls on us to be wide open to each other – not just listening, but letting ourselves be affected by what we hear and firing back the first response that comes to mind, without editing or censoring.  That kind of impulsive spontaneity makes for an exhilarating ride, but calls for more vulnerability than I, or anybody else for that matter, is usually up for.

“When I am open to being affected by your words, I can get hurt – and that goes double when you aren’t censoring. Ridicule, rejection, insults, intimidation, a dismissive tone, an exasperated look on your face – they all hurt.  Or I might have to face facts I’d rather not know about.  Or you might shake up one of my cherished beliefs, threatening my way of making sense of the world.  Or you might get emotional on me, and I won’t know how to handle it.  Or it might be me who gets emotional, and I don’t want to be that vulnerable with you.  Or you might praise me, and I’m not comfortable with praise.  Or we might get more connected, and I am afraid of intimacy.  I don’t want to get hurt, I don’t want to face difficult facts, I don’t want to lose my grip on reality, I don’t want to deal with emotions, or praise or intimacy, so I protect myself by not listening, or by listening without allowing what is being said to have an impact on me.”

Sitting there on the park bench, I have a vivid flashback: seven years old, in tears because the kids at school made fun of me, Mom intoning that familiar refrain about sticks and stones breaking my bones, but words never hurting me.  It dawns on me that mother was wrong and Harry is right.  Listening can be dangerous for your health.

“And everybody knows this – that listening is potentially dangerous?”

“Put it this way.  Whether or not we know it consciously, we all behave as though listening can be hazardous, and we all work out ways of protecting ourselves from hearing what we don’t want to hear.  Over time these defensive stances become habitual.  After all, it is hard to predict when someone is going to unleash a zinger, so we keep our guard up all the time.  Eventually we forget what it is like to listen openly.”

“It sounds as if we have more than one way of protecting ourselves from what we don’t want to hear.”

“You got it.  There are many styles of not listening.  The most obvious is retreating into your own world and literally ignoring what is going on around you.  Taken to a dysfunctional extreme, this amounts to autism or schizophrenia, but lots of people are oblivious to much of what is happening around them and are still able to function in the world.  These people don’t participate very much in conversations, and when they do, they tend to interrupt because they don’t notice someone else is talking.  They are not listening.

“Then there are your Monopolizers and your Interviewers.  These people protect themselves by controlling conversations. Monopolizers control by taking up all the airtime.  Interviewers control by asking a lot of questions, confining the discussion to subjects that feel relatively safe.  Both are protecting themselves from hearing what they don’t want to hear.  Both are out of the relationship.

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