One way to be a better friend: Listen

Respecting others' boundaries is an important part of maintaining a friendship. Credit: Metro File
Respecting others’ boundaries is an important part of maintaining a friendship.
Credit: Metro File

The question:

During a fight, one of my friends told me I’m a bad listener. I want to repair our relationship. How do I become a better listener?

Once in a while, when a conversation with someone I care about takes an unexpected turn that is not to my liking, I am tempted to stand up and yell “Cut!”

“Excuse me,” I imagine myself saying, leaning over the person’s shoulder, megaphone dangling at my hip. “But you are not following the script. Your lines are, ‘Yes, of course, you are right. I agree wholeheartedly. I will do such and such. Anything to make you happy.’”

“Oh,” they respond, slowly emerging from a daze. And they repeat the lines I have fed them. “Great, that’s more like it,” I reply. “Now say it with feeling.”

Of course, my fantasy conversations are usually just that — fantasies. And they’re not dialogues either; they are monologues — between me and my ego. Conversations between two parties who are not really listening to each other are essentially monologues masquerading as dialogues.

Most people spend their time vacillating between monologues and dialogues, with dialogues being far less frequent. Early 20th century philosopher Martin Buber described the difference between monologues and dialogues as an “I – It” vs. “I – Thou” dynamic. In each case, the “I” represents the self — essentially, the totality of our feelings, values and perceptions that comprise our personal daily universe.

According to Buber, the essence of existence lies in how we interact with others. The “I – It” relationship is about objectification. We relate to someone as an “it” every time fear and self-interest interfere with our being able to fully experience the exquisite reality of another human being. At its worst and most obvious, “I-Itting” is responsible for all genres of human atrocities — genocide, homicide, domestic violence, racism and sexism.

In our closer relationships, however, “I-Itting” can be much more insidious. Monologues can easily creep into and potentially corrupt the most innocent of conversations, often unintentionally. This usually occurs when we ignore other people’s boundaries, focus too much on making a good impression or engage with someone based on our perceptions of how well they can serve our personal needs.

The “I-Thou” relationship, on the other hand, is about letting go of agendas. It’s about authenticity, mutuality, witnessing and truth-telling. It respects differences and embraces separate but equally valid realities, which requires the courage to take risks and trust the process.

One of the hardest things we can ever do, and the greatest act of love, is to put aside our own agendas and really listen to another person. So while I may be tempted to redirect conversations that make me nervous, I know what I must ultimately do: put down my megaphone, toss out the script, take a deep breath and say, “yes, I am listening.” And mean it. I recommend you do the same.

This column is not intended to be used as a substitute for a private consultation with a mental health professional, nor is this therapist to be held liable for any actions taken as a result of this column. If you have any concerns related to this column, make an appointment with a licensed mental health professional. Metro does not endorse the opinions of the author.


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