‘I can’t listen to that person.’
‘You don’t listen to me.’
‘I don’t get that guy.’
You must’ve heard at least one of these sentences at least once in your lifetime. In fact, you might have uttered one or all of them at some point. Just the other day, I realised there are certain people whom I just can’t seem to listen to at all. My mind either wanders off while they are still speaking or my mood changes for the worse as soon as they say something. This made me stop and think. How do I sound to other people? Can they always follow me? And, hard as it may be to admit to oneself, do they really listen to me when I speak? No, it wasn’t pleasant to think about these things at all, but I’m glad I did. Because, unlike some things in life, this one can and should be helped.
First things first, though. Before I get into what can be done, it’s of utmost importance, in my humble opinion, to raise some awareness of certain habits which, according to Julian Treasure, a sound consultant and author of ‘How to be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening’ we all, to some degree, fall into. He calls them ‘Seven Deadly Sins of Speaking’ and here they are:
Let’s take a closer look at each.
By definition, gossiping is talking about other people’s private lives. Treasure puts it even more precisely – speaking ill of somebody who is not present. I say more precisely because we all talk about other people, especially with people closest to us, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we speak ill of them. We might draw on a certain new habit our next-door neighbour has taken up as an example of something we actually admire or use a piece of someone’s private life as an example one can learn from, say, someone’s way of dealing with something extremely difficult. But when the conversation constantly revolves around so-and-so’s new partner, how they treat them or how lavishly they live, then the conversation can get rather trite and dull. Besides, as Treasure points out ‘We know perfectly well the person gossiping, five minutes later, will be gossiping about us.’
This is a tricky one for many people. It can be hard not to judge anyone or anything that clashes with your own beliefs and principles. But if you are the one being judged all the time, you might think twice before you go on to pass your judgement on others. It’s extremely hard to speak to people when you know you are constantly under close scrutiny and when your words and actions are being dissected so as to be judged. Feeling inadequate might just be one of the worst human feelings there is. After all, whatever happened to ‘Live and let live?’
OK, granted, the world has gone awry, what with Covid, wars and a bad economy; we are all, more or less guilty as charged here. It can be justified, you’d agree. And it’s all a cycle anyway; sometimes we’re up and sometimes we’re down. It’s human nature. However, if you think about it, you’ll find that some people constantly see something (or everything) negative in the world around them or life in general, even when it has nothing to do with the three above-mentioned culprits. At closer inspection, you might even notice that their sentences almost invariably contain a negative verb form – not and never being the most common protagonists. And while the opposite can also be tiring, you know those people who are always hyped up about one thing or another and everything is bliss, a balance should be sought because it’s not easy or pleasant in the least bit when you are bombarded with negativity all the time. It’s simply hard not to walk away from such ‘conversations.’
Julian Treasure quite correctly considers complaining as ‘just another form of negativity.’ In fact, complaining could be defined as negativity in a personal realm, as it were. Negativity on a more egocentric level; bad things happening to YOU as if YOU are the only person in this universe. Not to be misunderstood, complaining can actually be the first step towards actually fixing a problem. But, we all know those people who just love to complain purely for the sake of complaining and that’s what’s really hard to listen to.
‘I can’t concentrate – I’ll just blame it on the weather. My paper was rejected – it must be that ‘they’ are absolutely benighted. My life is dull and I’m bored out of my mind – it’s too hot/cold/humid to do anything anyway. I’d love to take up drawing/yoga/salsa – I just don’t have free time.’ And so on, and so forth. This ‘blame game’ is a dangerous one. And I say dangerous, not because I can’t find a better word but because it is exactly that – dangerous. If you think about it, all you actually do with such an attitude is waste away perfectly fine years of your (brace yourself) SHORT life. Needless to say, having to listen to such excuses is not only tiresome but also rather disheartening. No one wants to be around a sacrificial lamb all the time.
Treasure correlates exaggeration and embroidery to lying and not without reason. Not only can overstating sometimes demean language, he says, but it is also quite unpleasant to listen to someone lying to us. Hyperbole is a handy (mostly) literary device which can, no doubt, be put to good use, especially if used to express great emotion or humour. However, people who can’t seem to call a spade a spade and have a compulsive need to make everything sound big, are hard to listen to. Think about this for a moment – ‘The beginning of wisdom is the ability to call things by their right names.’ Confucius was definitely on to something here.
This one might just be the most annoying of the bunch and the most likely reason for one to step away from ‘conversations’ with individuals who like to indulge in this ‘sport’. Dogmatism basically means ‘My way or the high way.’ According to the Cambridge dictionary, it’s stating your opinions in a strong way and not accepting anyone else’s opinions. ‘The confusion of facts and opinions,’ as Julian Treasure puts it. ‘When those two get conflated, you’re listening into the wind. When somebody is bombarding you with their opinions as if they were true, it’s difficult to listen to that.’
Now, feel free to take some time to process these. C’mon, no one is watching. Be honest when you ask yourself how many of these ‘sins’ you have committed or are in the habit of committing. Once you’re done cringing, and if you find your speech wanting, go on to read about how it can become powerful.
Julian Treasure mentions four cornerstones or foundations, crucial to improving the way we communicate with others.
Honesty – being true to what you say, being straight and clear
Authenticity – being yourself, standing in your own truth
Integrity – being your word, actually doing what you say, and being somebody people can trust
Love – wishing people well
Again, let’s take a closer look at each:
It’s a tale as old as time – honesty is the best policy. Even though it can be harsh, honesty will always be appreciated unlike its opposite – lying. It’s the only solid foundation that can withstand any kind of pressure.
People who do not pretend to be someone they are not, who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and who do not try to hide their quirkiness are usually those people who, like magnets, attract others around them. Conversely, a phoney is quickly seen through and avoided.
Put quite simply – practise what you preach. Do what you encourage others to do. Otherwise, you’ll come off as a sanctimonious, arrogant person or, in layman’s terms, a wise guy.
All of the above, especially honesty should be sprinkled, or better yet, soaked with love. Only if your words are kind and altruistic will people actually listen to you and want to engage in conversations with you.
So, there you go! It’s not rocket science. It’s about becoming aware of the bad habits we commit when we open our mouths to speak on a daily basis and building new ones, ones that are based on kindness above all. It’s hard NOT to listen to someone who means well.
Watch Julian Treasure’s TED video talk which this post (and a shift in our mindset) was inspired by.
Join us in After Class to learn how to become a better speaker and listener!