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.

 

If You’re No Fun Anymore…

I’ve gotten the same message a few times in the last week or so. I may be hard headed, but if you hit me with a board enough times, I will notice.

adult-beard-black-and-white-543The first message came VERY directly from my Reiki master. We were working together and she just paused and looked at me: “When was the last time you had fun – not work on yourself, self-help, progress fun – just straight-up silly time fun?” I grunted in acknowledgement, not really wanting to answer her question. She relented and understood my hesitation for what it was, a need to give that more serious thought. Yep, that’s how I roll.

Truth is while I am FUNNY and can be FUN, I’m a pretty serious person. I spend a lot of time thinking about serious things, working on serious things, helping people with serious things. I have fun with that – I enjoy it, but it is not just straight-up silly time fun.

The second message came from my kids. They graduated from 5th grade a few days ago and while the beginning of the day was dominated by a ceremony that I think nearly bored them to tears, the rest of the day was play. They had a celebration with their classmates. They played soccer and ran around. They played on the monkey bars and played tag. They ate snow cones and laughed. Then they came home on the bus to prepare for our annual last day of school neighborhood water fight. My kids took it upon themselves to invite the youngest kids to our house to teach them the finer points of water balloon warfare without putting them in harm’s way with the middle school crowd down the hill. They played for hours: water balloons, squirt guns, a slip and slide and the next door neighbor’s giant swing. Then they came inside and quickly showered so we could watch our Friday night movie. I’m pretty sure we all fell asleep on the couch at some point. They PLAYED. They played hard. They played without pause. They played until we told them it was time to stop. They played like it was their job. I thought that and decided to hang on to that thought.

I picked up a magazine the next morning, taking full advantage of a few minutes before we started preparing the house for guests. I’d had the issue for months and had just never gotten around to reading it. I opened it to a random page in the middle and was confronted with the title of an article: “Playtime.” I’m listening.

The final message was from a friend, another seminarian (once you know one you know many). His sermon on Sunday was entitled: “Blessed Be Fun,” and it was all about the conclusion he has come to that there is enough that needs doing in this world that it is okay to pick the part that is actually fun. He describes this notion as part of his “theology of fun,” whereby we stop telling ourselves that the things we enjoy and dream of engaging in aren’t big or important enough. We stop fearing that allowing ourselves enjoyment and pleasure will devolve directly into hedonism. We, instead, learn from children who have the flexibility to follow and enjoy the process they are engaged in without such a keen and critical regard for the results.

I had to laugh. I was actually becoming seriously entertained by the full-scale campaign being waged against my inner-disciplinarian in favor of… fun.

The interesting thing is that I had actually taken this lens to my business in the weeks prior. If you follow the blog separately, rather than waiting for my newsletter to come out, you know I’ve been writing a WHOLE lot more. The reason for that is simple. Of the tasks I do for my business, writing is one of my favorites and I was limiting my writing time in favor of other parts of the business that I truly did not enjoy. During my weeks of physical meltdown, I decided to shift that focus. I decided it was okay to follow the fun. I decided that what I really enjoy actually matters.

So all of these messages confirmed that for me, but they also pushed me to look a little deeper, well, or a little shallower in this case. I look deep as a matter of course. Maybe, just maybe, I could lighten up a little.

So I’m thinking about that… LOL. I really meant that because that’s my reaction, my go-to response to something that I’m really not sure how to do. Sometimes I’m not sure how to lighten up, how to just have fun.

adult-beautiful-blow-156168But here’s the thing. I know people who really truly know how to do that. There are three other souls in this house who are much better at lightening up than I am. So the easy first step is to accept the invitations. My kids are around most of this summer (I planned a few structured diversions so the seminarian and I could get some work done). They will ask me to do things with them. They will ask me to play games. They will ask if we can go to a pool or a park or for a walk in the woods. The answer I hope to make habitual is YES. I want to channel Shonda Rhimes this summer and when my kids ask if I can play with them, I want to say yes.

I also want to follow their example and pay attention to the things that make me feel good, that I enjoy, that are fun to do regardless of the outcome. And I want to shift my energy output so more of it goes right there. I agree with my friend Bob Clegg who said: “If there’s a loving God in heaven (or a universal presence, omniscient spirit, etc), surely it would want us to have fun.”

If you struggle with this and you need me to tell you that play is important, not just fun, I’m going to say that. It’s important. It’s important because it teaches you. It’s important because it frees you. It’s important because humans get to have joy and you are human.

Now stop all of this heavy lifting and go play. Don’t come home until the streetlights come on.

XO,

julia