The Benefit of Doubt

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?

blond-blurred-background-cars-825982Literal 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.

ask-blackboard-356079For 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.

 

Let Them Be Wrong

A lesson for the holidays and everyday…

In my last post I talked about ways to rewrite our family stories. If you missed it, I strongly encourage you to check it out. For many of us taking a look at those old family stories is absolutely critical to emotional adulthood, to clean functionality in the real world, and to having a shot at really creating a life we love. There are all kinds of stories that are dream life and peaceful holiday killers.

TODAY I want to talk about a particular kind of story.

TODAY I want to talk about the kind of story that involves you knowing what someone else thinks of you.

TODAY I will admit that I used to spend a lot of time in this particular kind of story.

I was pretty sure I knew what lots of people thought about me and I spent a LOT of time and energy trying to either repair/change those thoughts or prevent bad ones from emerging. It was totally exhausting AND it was really lonely because about 85% of the time in that scenario I was not being myself. I missed out on genuine connection with folks and friends, I missed myself. There is nothing quite so lonely as missing yourself.

Over the last few years I’ve stumbled into the necessity of examining what I was believing about how others felt about me. It was not pretty. And it was wrong on a lot of fronts. For example:

  1. when people judge youMany of those beliefs were based on old data. One of my old family stories revolved around me being spoiled. I was the youngest, by a bit of a stretch, and as happens with many families my parents’ financial circumstances improved over time. I was dubbed the spoiled one (and yes, it was said, often with good-humored ribbing but on more than one occasion as a character evaluation – here’s what’s wrong with you kind of thing). I’m 48 now. My parents don’t buy my stereo equipment. Old data.
  2. Many of those beliefs were based on the idea that other people’s opinions of me are static. They said it once, they must always believe that to be true. Yeah, because everything I think has stayed completely the same since I was 12…
  3. Many of those beliefs assumed that people spent a whole lot more time paying attention to and judging me than would really be reasonable. Why on earth was I under the impression that they were so interested in what I was up to?
  4. Many of those beliefs were based on the assumption that if other people thought something bad about me, I had to do something about it.

My spoiled story shows all of these things. What’s interesting about this story is not that I took that assessment in, but that I got real clear on the fact that there were family members who saw me that way and I made that their permanent opinion of me. I never worried that I WAS actually spoiled, but I hated it that they thought I was. And I thought that they thought I was spoiled on a continuous and regular basis, as though they were doctors assessing an injury for healing or further damage. I interpreted so many interactions through this lens, and I was determined to do something about it. I thought that I needed to be good, or make it right, or let them see how I really am – surely they would change their minds if they knew me better. They would feel better about me, and I would feel better about myself if I just let them see the right stuff.

when people are meanAnd then one day it dawned on me. I could choose to stop doing anything about this belief. Whether it was true that they were judging me or not became irrelevant if  I could just decide to let them be wrong. That’s it. Because what they think of me doesn’t do me any harm at all if I don’t agree and I don’t get into their business. If I don’t put time, energy, and worry into what’s going on in their hearts and heads, I can just let them be wrong. And let’s just say they ARE judging me… who loses in this scenario? Not me. Because I’m staying out of it. If they want to miss out, so be it. “Who’s opinion of you matters the most?” I ask my daughter whenever some toxic mean girl crap arises at school. “Mine Mommy, my opinion matters most.” That’s right girl. If my opinion of me is okay, then what they think or don’t think doesn’t matter. If my opinion of me is not okay then THAT’s what I should be spending my time on, not trying to figure out how other people feel about me. I can just let them be wrong.

And when I do this, when I let other people be wrong, I am freed from the tyranny of proving myself. I am freed from the push and pull of faking it the right way versus being myself. I am freed from the endless tension that getting in other people’s business inevitably creates. When I do this I am free to relax and just be, and that sounds like a pretty good recipe for a better holiday, or any day.

What would change if you could let people be wrong about you? How much time, energy, and sleep could you reclaim? Maybe it’s time to find out.