Over the last few years I’ve become a close observer of how I interact with other people.
That sounds kind of stalker-esque and creepy.
What I mean is that I’m a lot more aware of what parts of a conversation I’m responsible for, what parts are completely out of my control, and which parts are imagined and therefore none of my business.
Yesterday I heard that I had been left off a list – I didn’t get the invite. It was a pretty big deal – big event, big emotions, old baggage. It was unintentional. Nothing was meant by it, but my mind didn’t want to let it be. It really wanted to turn this into something. It didn’t need me to raise a ruckus about it, but it wanted to chew on it and make it mean something hurtful. I turned to my friend literal listening.
What is literal listening?
Literal listening is paying close attention to all of the words that are actually spoken, asking for clarification as needed and, here’s the kicker, not inserting any additional words, interpretations, subtexts, feelings, hostility, or anything else you might be inclined to insert. You take in and respond to exactly what is said.
The key question to literal listening is: “What is (or was) actually being said? What words were used?” Notice there’s no: “What did so and so REALLY mean?” in that formulation. Literal listening assumes that speakers will say what they mean and that listeners will ask for clarification as needed.
Why is literal listening useful?
Literal listening protects our feelings, our energy levels, keeps us from wasting time, and allows us to focus on what is true and necessary. Literal listening does all of this by preventing us from getting into someone else’s business, and by that I mean what they think of us. Let me back up a little here because I don’t think I’ve talked about this for a while.
I firmly believe that what other people think of me is absolutely none of my business. It is an idea I personally got from a writer named Byron Katie, but I know it’s around in other places as well. What people have in their heads about me is their problem, not mine. When I spend a lot of time interpreting, inferring, assuming, and detecting, I am actually invading their privacy; let’s face it, while there seems to be less evidence of it these days, adults do self-edit sometimes, and that’s a good thing. If the person you are engaged with has chosen NOT to tell you what they think of you, shouldn’t they have that option? Mightn’t it be better that way?
There is an important effect here for the late night mind monkeys. Literal listening strips away all of the grist for our rotten story weavers and lets us simply face the facts as we actually KNOW them to be.
When is literal listening helpful?
Literal listening is particularly helpful when we’re interacting with the people in our lives who are difficult or with whom we have baggage: maybe we even know they don’t like us be we are tied to them in some way that makes no contact unavoidable. Maybe we know we don’t like them but haven’t quite managed to rearrange our social circles yet. Maybe it’s a co-worker who is difficult and unpleasant. Maybe it’s a boss who tends to be short with praise and long on condescending looks and deep sighs. Clearly there’s stuff there, but do we really want to enter into the kind of conversation we would have to have to clear it all up with ALL of those people? Would we even have that opportunity? I’m pretty sure there are a lot of work environments where team counseling is not an option. I know there are family situations where that would take years.
Literal listening allows us to engage with the people with whom we have baggage, real or imagined, and still accomplish the things we need to accomplish without taking on more emotional burden.
It allows us to interact with people with whom we have insecurities and maybe old wounds without taking on more hits.
It allows us to continue to function and take responsibility for what we do and say in environments that feel emotionally charged.
It allows us to find some room to simply be and be ourselves and requires adults who have a problem with that to actually come out and say something.
For me literal listening gives me a way to rewind the tape when my story teller gets rolling. When I am deciding what people think of me, what they REALLY meant, why they did what they did or said what they said or what they REALLY think and then looking for evidence for all of that horrible stuff, I can take a big deep breath and ask myself: “Do I know any of that? Is it true? Was it actually said? What WAS actually said? Am I creating a problem by invading his/her private thoughts? Am I making myself suffer by trying to figure out the subtext?” I can benefit from the doubt that arises when I ask myself these questions.
That doubt allows me to stop the storyteller, and to thank her for trying to protect me all of the time. I can give her a pat on the head and suggest she take a nap while I review the words that were actually spoken and remove all of the meanings I’m so tempted by old wounds and insecurity to add. I can choose, even if someone really IS being rotten, I can always choose to not take that in and make it part of me, and oh my how much better that feels.