Listening: The Real Secret to Conversation
Reconnecting with others is all about active listening.
Listening, conversation, and mental health recovery. You are seated at a job interview. Or you may be one-on-one at a social gathering. A lot may be riding on the next few minutes or very little. Either way, a successful outcome will enhance your sense of connectedness and move your recovery forward. You have already figured out that yammering in a loud voice only works if you are employed by Fox News. Thankfully, your meds will keep that from happening.
But what if you fail to grasp the significance of your prospective employer glancing at his watch? Or a potential new friend clearing her throat? There is no pill for that.
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Poor Bob. How can I ever forget? I ran into him at open mic night at a NAMI convention a number of years back. He had considerable keyboard talent, and he let it be known to me he also plays four saxophones.
For the uninitiated, if you play one sax you play them all, plus all manner of reed instruments. No one except maybe Forest Gump says, "I play four saxophones." Fortunately, Bob was in a safe place. I replied by asking who his favorite sax players were.
On the last evening of the convention, a fifties-sixties cover band was setting up. I was talking to the sax player. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Bob with his parents. Without warning, without waiting for a pause in our conversation, Bob broke formation, approached the sax player and, without introducing himself, blurted out:
"I play four saxophones."
The sax player and I looked at each other. Oh-oh, I thought. This is the real world now. The sax player, of course, had nothing to say. Whatever reaction Bob had been expecting or hoping for wasn't going to happen. There was nothing left for him to do but rejoin his parents and move on.
Imagine how the conversation (and his night) might have gone had Bob waited for an appropriate break and opened with, "Say, is that a Selmer Mach VI you're packing?"
A year or two later, I was talking to a mom with a 14-year-old daughter. The mom related to me how her daughter - let's call her Patty - had approached her in a state of confusion, seeking motherly counsel. Apparently, Patty had told a friend that she didn't like the bangs on her hair. The friend got all upset. Patty was taken aback by her friend's reaction. She thought it was honest feedback. She meant no harm.
Patty and her friend are learning to grow up, though over the course of the next several years it will appear as if both are regressing to age two. Every day, Patty and her friend will be challenged by new situations. As their brains store new memories and build complex neural networks, the two will respond to similar events far more skillfully, with the confidence to navigate novel ones. They will enter adulthood and the workforce socially adept, and will continue to improve.
Poor Bob. I'm guessing he has been sheltered from the real world for a good deal of his life. But even a short break from life's rumble and tumble has the potential to incapacitate us for a lifetime. Alas, Bob and I have a lot in common.
Clawing my way back from my illness - that was relatively easy. Breaking out of my isolation - essentially learning to reconnect - that was hard. Fortunately (I think), I had a lot more going for me than Bob. I had been trained as a lawyer and been successful as a journalist. At least, in the art of communication, I had achieved a certain level of proficiency.
At the same NAMI convention, I had breakfast with highly regarded author and journalist Pete Earley. Later in the day, NAMI would honor him for his outstanding book, "Crazy: A Father's Search through America's Mental Health Madness."
In the course of our breakfast, Pete demonstrated why he is a way better journalist than I am. It was simple. He got me to do just about all the talking. Journalists make their living by getting the other person to talk. Since this is a skill that carries over extremely well into social settings, let's examine a few of the things Pete did:
First, he made ME feel like the star attraction, not him. He showed he was glad to see me, he made me comfortable. He complimented me on my book. He acknowledged my journalistic strong suits and showed he was interested in picking my brains on a topic that was my passion (brain science).
Out of compassion, I kept my answers short, giving Pete plenty of opportunity to break in and change to a subject more to his liking. Instead, he fed my talking points back to me, in his own words, showing he was both listening and interested. Soon I was singing like the Mormon Tabernacle choir.
Naturally, I came away from our "conversation" thinking Pete Earley was the greatest guy in the world, which, of course, he is.
Pete was the "active listener" in our conversation. My first real experience with active listening occurred one year out of law school when I improbably landed a senior editorial position as a financial journalist. I knew nothing about finance. I knew nothing about journalism. Moreover, I was a slow study.
One of my first assignments was to interview a prominent tax accountant. We settled into his well-appointed office, with a spectacular view of the harbor. I pulled out my notebook. It was time to pretend I was a journalist.
The success or failure of my interview, I knew, was riding on my ability to listen. In essence, to respond to my subject's remarks in a way that would move the conversation forward. Thus, if my interviewee were to say something like, "Tax policy needs to be based on fairness and equity," I needed to reply with something like: "Do you think the tax laws are fair right now?"
We weren't too far into the conversation when I predictably became totally lost and confused. Words and phrases such as "amortization" and "zero-based budgeting" have a way of doing that to you.
Fortunately, I was the beneficiary of beginner's luck. "Let me see if I got this right," I recalled interjecting. Then I attempted to restate my subject's point, but in my own words.
Apparently, restating - reframing, interpreting, reflecting - is a cardinal principle of active listening. The interviewer benefits from getting the facts right. The interviewee benefits from the reassurance that he or she is not talking to a brick wall. Those in the "people professions" engage in this sort of thing all the time.
In these situations, you need to bury your ego to the point where YOU don't exist. Again, I was the beneficiary of beginner's luck. Since I knew nothing about taxation, I had no temptation to jump in and show off how much I knew.
Unfortunately, that was not the case in my personal life. At the same time, my first marriage was falling apart. Neither of us were listening. Both of us were doing a lot of shouting. Sad to say, we tend to be so busy thinking about what we want to say next that we fail to pay attention. We only want to talk. We fail to realize that talking doesn't work if no one is listening.
Within months, I was out of the house, never to return. The job that I knew nothing about? Turned out that after three years, I left on my own terms for an even better position in the same field. I actually wound up publishing three books on business/finance topics. Of all things, by learning to listen, people actually wound up wanting to hear me talk.
Crazy world we live in.
Based on a series of pieces for BipolarConnect, 2008, reworked with new material as an article May 6, 2011
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