Listening: The Rules
The best way to make a good impression is by keeping your words few.
Listening, conversation, and mental health recovery. Cast your mind back to the 1992 Presidential campaign. Numerous commentators have pegged the defining moment as the first George Bush looking at his watch during a key town hall debate. What was Bill Clinton doing?
Journalist Joe Klein in his book, "The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton," describes how an African-American woman asked a confusing question that seemed to have something to do with the disconnect between politicians and those facing hardship during a recession.
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Upon clarification from both the moderator and the woman, Bush replied: "Well, listen, you ought to be in the White House for a day and hear what I hear ... I was in the Lomax AME Church. It's a black church just outside Washington DC. And I read the bulletin about teenage pregnancies, about difficulties people are having making ends meet ..."
Then it was Clinton's turn. According to Joe Klein: "He did something quite extraordinary. He took three steps toward the woman and asked her, 'Tell me how it's affected you again?'" As Klein describes it:
The three steps forward spoke volumes about his empathy, his concern, his desire to respond to the needs of the public. Bush, by contrast, was caught gazing at his wristwatch - hoping desperately that this awkward moment would soon be done.
Fast forward to the run-up to the 2008 Presidential primary season. All over the country, people were expressing their fascination over the very real prospect of the next President being either African-American or a woman. Even those not interested in politics were talking about politics. I was in Connecticut for a mental health conference. I arrived for lunch late, grabbed some cold roast beef and bread and salad from the buffet, and joined a group of people at one of the tables.
I settled in just as someone - let's call him Yorick - was sounding forth. Yorick was fairly articulate, but my guess was that he was used to socializing in a cloistered setting, such as a club house. The group at the table represented something closer to the real world.
Naturally, I wanted to make Yorick feel welcome. I responded in a way that signaled I was interested in what he was saying. Big mistake.
It turned out Yorick had anointed himself as the table's master of ceremonies, with himself as the featured speaker. I looked around the table at rolling eyes and nervous titters. It was clear to everyone that Yorick was breaking up the party.
"When are they going to abolish the electoral college?" he blurted out of nowhere, completely cutting off someone else. By now, people were scooping up their plates and making for the exits.
Okay, first let me congratulate Yorick for the considerable stretch he made that day. We endure long periods of isolation. We lose our self-confidence. Our social skills grow rusty. We finally summon up the courage to venture out in public, only to freeze up, caught in our fear and anxiety.
Many of us never make it past this point. I know what it is like to be entombed in my own silence. I also know how liberating it is to break through and hear myself talk. But once we get talking, it's hard to get us to stop. Where we marvel at a miracle - a significant personal breakthrough - others recoil as if to the blast of jackhammers. Alas, poor Yorick.
Yorick, if you're out there, here are three quick pointers:
- Listen to yourself for use of the "I" word or "me" word. One or the other is a sure indication you need to reel yourself in fast.
- Only venture an opinion when asked. As a general rule, speak only when every molecule in the room has stopped moving.
- Don't hijack other people's conversations. Resist at all times the urge to jump in and talk.
And here's some not-so-quick pointers (or lessons I learned the hard way):
No One Really Cares About You
Remember Bob, who thought people would be thrilled to hear that he played four saxophones? Even if he had been the world's leading cardiologist volunteering that he'd just won the Nobel Prize in Medicine, no one would have given a shit. Really, no matter who you are, unless you are handing out money or other favors no one is listening. They have tuned you out.
Believe it or not, this brutal fact of life is liberating. Gone is the burden to talk about yourself. You don't have to show how smart or funny or compassionate you are, much less display your big shot credentials. You don't even have to open your mouth. All you have to do is show up.
Attend any family function or social gathering and you will notice that most "conversations" are all about people waiting impatiently for their turn to talk. This is accomplished by various "keyword prompts." Thus, if Barney says, "The eyes are the windows into the soul," this is Betty's cue to jump in with, "I'm thinking of purchasing new windows for the kitchen."
Yes, I know - this makes absolutely no sense. But the good news is you don't need to pass an intelligence test to join in, and it might help if you've actually flunked a few. But even mindless rituals require timing and nuance and a feel for the dynamics of what is going on in the room. So - once again - listening is everything.
It's All About Listening (Again)
People love to hear themselves talk. Essentially, they get a buzz out of breathing loudly with their lips moving. Your role is to facilitate their needs. Once you've realized that no one really cares about you, your job is easy. All you have to do is keep the conversation focussed on the other individual. Thus:
If someone happens to divulge that they have a kitten, instead of using this as an opening to yap-yap-yap about your own precious little fur-ball, instead you ask about THEIR kitten. Keep your questions specific, such as: "What is your kitten's name?"
"Tiger," says the proud cat-lover. "Tiger," you reply, "what a cute name." You have validated the talker's answer by showing that you are listening. Now you follow up with a slightly higher degree of difficulty question: "Does Tiger sleep in bed with you?"
This is the other person's cue to relate how the little psychopath jumped off a ledge at three in the morning and belly-flopped onto his face. You've got a conversation going. Whatever you do, resist the urge to talk about your kitten. Remember, the speaker is only interested in HIS kitten, not yours.
When It's Your Turn to Talk
The spotlight is now on you, but only because you have earned it. You have been actively listening. You have been sensitive to the needs of the others in the room. Time for your elevator pitch.
The elevator pitch is based on the necessity of articulating the gist of your point in the time it takes to ride an elevator. Fifteen seconds. Sixteen, tops. The term is most associated with venture capitalism, that volatile field of commerce where ideas meet money. An elevator pitch involving Thomas Edison and a nineteenth-century financier might have gone something like this:
"My lightbulb harnesses the exciting new technology of the electric current. It's safe, it's reliable, it's easy to use. It delivers much better light. Consumers love it. Businesses operate far more efficiently. It's the wave of the future."
Fifteen seconds exactly.
Our whole conversational life is a constant succession of elevator pitches. People have notoriously short attention spans. You have a mere 15 seconds to make an impression. Sixteen seconds and you are living on borrowed time. There is a phone about to go off, a baby ready to throw up, a tree on the brink of crashing through the ceiling. Seventeen seconds and you are virtually certain to be looking into a pair of glazed eyes.
"Let your words be few," says the Old Testament. Less is more.
Things We Have to Contend With
Here are just a few of my issues: I'm introverted and socially anxious by nature. But I also paradoxically perk up around people. Next thing, you can't shut me up. I also have an over-active and non-linear brain, which means my brilliant insights are bound to come across as gibberish unless I'm careful. Plus, I have a way of tuning out my surroundings, as if I am not in my body. Also, I can use a lot of work on my eye contact.
Other individuals have entirely different challenges, such as certain brain systems that are barely booting up. For example, there is a suggestive body of evidence linking inactivity in "mirror neurons" in the frontal lobes to lack of empathy. Likewise, if our perceptions and emotions are blunted (or for that matter over-active), we have difficulty reading the situation in the room and responding appropriately. Then, there is the whole issue of flat affect (such as a limited range of facial and vocal expressions). On and on it goes
It's a cruel Catch-22: Our illness isolates us from the world. Our recovery depends in very large part on making connections. But our ability to make connections is sabotaged by our illness. No one ever said this was going to be easy.
Things We Can Build On
Try these on for size: Thinks deep, creative, passionate, smart, funny, intuitive, original, skilled, talented, cares about issues, cares about people. On and on. Chances are you recognize a bit of yourself in this. Funny thing about the brain: In so many ways, we show up for the game of life as ten-point underdogs. In so many other ways, we have a ten-yard running head start.
Heaven knows, when it comes to connecting and reconnecting with others, we all have our individual special challenges. But our common lesson is a simple and recurring one - learn to listen. People like Bob and Yorick clearly have their work cut out for them. Then again, so does George Bush the First. We're not all that different, after all.
Based on a series of pieces for BipolarConnect, 2008, reworked with new material as an article May 6, 2011
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