QUESTION: I was at breakfast with a friend and we were having a conversation. What troubled me was that when he was talking, I was listening. I didn’t butt in or comment inappropriately. When I began responding, he had a vacant look in his eyes and it was obvious he wasn’t listening. He was fine as long as he was talking.
Is two-way conversation a lost art? I was trying not to be annoyed, but I was. This is the second or third time this has happened. Is there a nice way I can remind him that I’d like to be listened to as well?
~ Good Listener
Hello, Good Listener,
First of all, I hear you. And I commend you on your sharing of your time to meet with your friend to give support and a listening ear. In the world today, those who are willing to be gracious listening souls are few and far between and it is a special thing when you find someone who truly listens. When a friend finds someone like this, it is often the case that they will take advantage of the “listening ear” as much as possible. They may have nowhere and no one else in their lives who fulfills this one important purpose and so when that person is found they relish every moment of being able to share from their heart. It is difficult for those who are empathetic toward others; they may feel a sense of under appreciation by not having that gift of listening returned. Consider yourself this person’s gift. You hold a special place in the life of this friend, for you are one of the few who lets them open up.
But (excuse me while I “but” in here) the difficulty of not having this listening reciprocated is putting pressure on your side of the friendship. If friendship is to be true, it needs to be a relationship that benefits both, and it seems that is not the case. My recommendation is to speak to this person about how you feel in the situation. They may not even know they are doing it. They may be wrapped up in their own thinking while you are speaking, thinking about what they want to say next. Give them an opportunity to not worry about having to say the “right” thing by just asking them to listen. These types of people may think of themselves as “fixers” and want to be able to say and do what will help; but in wanting to do that, they really don’t even listen well enough to be able to alleviate a situation. Ask them to just be with you – and to listen.
Pastor Scott Peterson
Dear Good Listener,
This is a great question and is asked of me often, with different scenarios, of course. My answer will include spiritual, social and psychological components because the work I do as a minister and psychotherapist views people and what they do through this lens.
Spiritually, we know that the Bible has some good advice: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak …” (James 1:19). Social skills include techniques that can be taught if someone is lacking in this area (listen twice as much as you speak, etc.). Then I want to know a person’s context that affects them psychologically: How were they raised? What have they been through? And what is the genetic makeup of their brain?
We do not simply do what we do because we have a spiritual issue (spirituality may not be a part of the life of a person you are speaking) or lack of social skills. We often do things out of our hurt, what was normal in our family of origin, or out of trauma or difficult trails in our lives.
Mental health is another issue. Is there depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder? These issues may not have been what you were expecting when you asked this question, but I will give an educated answer and I hope it can help.
I seriously doubt that your friend was being purposefully rude. You were indeed practicing great communication skills, listening and speaking appropriately. Maybe he did not learn these skills as he developed. I run into this exact situation with patients, certain family members, even individuals in groups I am a member in.
Sometimes a lack of communication skills comes from something formed in childhood, self-focus or self-centeredness, narcissistic traits and, often, there might be a genetic or mental issue. One diagnosis that causes excessive speech and poor listening is attention deficit disorder (ADHD), which is not rare.
ADHD is a neurological issue and is outside someone’s control unless he/she has had therapy to learn communication skills and/or he/she takes medication to help with impulsivity and tuning out. ADHD causes an internal “pressure” inside the brain to talk. It also causes, in the prefrontal cortex, individuals to zone out when others are talking. An ADHD brain can tune out two sentences into a conversation.
I appreciate what you wrote: “Is a two-way conversation a lost art?” I don’t think so. This is not an “all or nothing” question. I believe many people are great communicators. I also believe others are poor communicators. There definitely are people who are self-centered, self-focused, more narcissistic, have neurological attention issues, or suffer from depression. Any and all of these issues can make for a poor listener. The good news is that all of these issues that people cope with can benefit from therapy and communication skill training. However, it often takes someone pointing this issue out to another or a negative consequence in life within a close interpersonal relationship or professionally to encourage a person to seek out the help they need to learn how to better communicate.
The good news? These individuals can become some of the best communicators you know once these skills are learned.
Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian, Psy.D(c), LMFT licensed psychotherapist
QUESTION: I’m normally not a worrywart, but this time I’m extremely concerned. My husband is approaching his 70th birthday and he wants to skydive to celebrate. He says he doesn’t want to cause me any undue worry but he really wants to do this. I have to admit he’s in excellent health except for some inconsistent joint pain and his doctor gave him the “all clear.”
Should I just back off and let him go ahead? I pray every day for God’s guidance to relieve me of the stress and worry.
~ Spoil Sport
Dear Spoil Sport,
I’m sure that you are familiar with the movie that came out 10 years ago called “The Bucket List” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. You’ll recall that it’s about two terminally ill men who escape from the cancer ward in a hospital and head off on a road trip with a wish list of things they want to do before they die. It seems that many of us men have had a “bucket list” that we’ve put ideas into for most of our adult life. Unfortunately, the responsibilities of life (like marriage, parenting and providing for our families) have pushed most of those things down so deep into the bucket that they have been completely forgotten. But later in life as responsibilities lessen we tend to think about and maybe even yearn for those things again.
I commend you for your concern for your husband’s safety and I commend him for wanting to not cause you any undue worry over this. I’m sure if you’ve been together for more than a few years you have had to trust your husband’s judgment many times. Possibly the most important thing to consider with his desire to jump out of a plane is his health. And you’ve indicated that he’s in excellent health and his doctor has given him the clearance to do this, which means that he’s already taken the precautions to put your mind (and maybe his) at ease about doing it.
Over the years, you’ve probably had to leave your husband in the hands of the Lord more than once as you pursued life and all its challenges. Jesus taught His followers many times not to worry, but to trust Him to take care of them and their loved ones. This is probably one of those times when you just have to put your faith in the Lord and your husband that it will turn out for the best.
I think the words of the Apostle Paul to believers will encourage you today: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). And just think: he’s not as old at the 101-year-old man from southwest England who just a few weeks ago became the oldest tandem skydiver to jump out of a plane at 35,000 feet!
Dear Spoil Sport,
I can certainly understand both your concerns and your husband’s excitement! I have a number of friends who have gone skydiving for the sheer joy of it and for me it would be sheer terror! Two different reactions for the same activity.
Neither is right. Neither is wrong.
Life is like that. What is exciting for one is scary for another. That is the beauty of living. We get to choose our own experience. Everything we think, everything we do, everything we manifest, starts in our own minds first. Your husband wants to create an exciting celebration of his life by jumping out of a plane. I’m sure he’s visualized this many, many times and has no fear or doubts about the outcome. He’s ready to say, “yes!” to this experience.
And I’m sure the opposite is true for you. Your stress and worry is coming from a different visualization – the “what-if” syndrome that is creating a very different outcome. No wonder you’re fearful for him! Nobody wants anything bad to happen to the people we love.
But what we tend to focus on expands so you can continue to create fear through your concerns or you can create peace through acceptance. You can choose to back off and know that your husband is safe, whole and taken care of by Spirit. In treating for this (Religious Science term for prayer) you will also receive the peace of mind that you crave.
Instead of being a “spoil sport,” spoil him with love and affection and celebrate his accomplishment. This will certainly be a day you’ll both remember for the rest of your lives. Who knows … maybe you’ll do it with him the next time!