The Day I Stopped Listening & Learned a Weird Lesson on Vulnerability
Weird title, yeah? Let me begin by telling you titles are not my forte so I often just spit one out, overthink how to make it better, and end up butchering it. Today you get to see the very second try, because vulnerability. <grin>
A WEIRD LESSON ON VULNERABILITY
Listening well is a skill we all need, and we generally concur that it is better to learn to listen than to speak. The world is full of empty conversation, is it not? For introverts especially, we often feel a burden not to add to what feels like useless chatter. And yet, conversation is how we connect, it is a defining marker of humans.
Good subject matter in conversation is... subjective and difficult. If we talk about ourselves we're narcissistic, but if we talk about others it's gossip. What is left? The weather and politics. Probably why it gets canvassed as much as it does. Then we have people who always talk about themselves, or never talk about themselves. They blather on for an hour, or ask the most ingenious questions to draw us out, and halfway into a conversation we figure out they have told us not one thing about themselves, making us feel foolish.
Being interesting, and handling the give and take is one part. Being real and wise in all levels of talk is even trickier. The idea is we bring ourselves to the table every time which is always easier talked about than done.
THE PARADOXES HOLD HANDS
It's fascinating to me how life paradoxes go hand in hand. For example, great joys can cause us to become afraid.
"I can't believe I'm a parent. Wow. Look at this incredible tiny human. I've never felt more alive in my entire life. Oh, I have to keep her alive! What if... What if... Maybe I bought the wrong carseat for the way Home and an accident happens. Oh no! What if I'm a bad parent? What if I can't give her a good start in life?"
Authenticity comes with a similar price tag when applied only to what we say. It's a necessary human experience but can lead to the need to keep one-upping that last bit of realness for another better one. It doesn't take long for that to become fake.
Most buzzwords and concepts have a core of legitimacy: vulnerability, authenticity, keep things that "spark joy" in your home, "non-essentialism," etc. These are great things when loved wisely and not too well, but crown one king without factoring in the others... and watch the monarchy march begin!
A good life is full of checks and balances. Something like vulnerability must be practiced wholly, and yet, it must be kept to its proper place. It's balanced by what is appropriate for a situation (imagine walking into a baby shower and announcing that you had an abortion) and level of relationship (the new acquaintance at the pool party probably won't know what to do if you tell them you cried all night). It is a vital concept by itself, and yet plays on a stage with discretion as its equal.
The paradox continues when we realize that shockingly, small talk and deep subject matter actually hold equal weight as world players. Introverts need people, and extroverts, space. Conversations need both intensity and relaxed nothingness. Friendships need authenticity and privacy. A best friend knows when to withdraw, where a stranger may stay a little further away to respect a need they can't read accurately.
I belong to a set of friends who like to converse analytically. It's fun to dissect behaviors, opinions, literature, movies, and ideas. We analyze social settings, personalities, friendship, and parse things nearly to bits sometimes. It's satisfying and has some benefit, yet also holds an interesting paradox: it sounds real but doesn’t guarantee honesty or openness.
Merely talking about real topics doesn't at all insure the fact that we are being real. Honesty begins when microscopes are put away i.e. putting behaviors and thoughts and opinions that belong to humans under a microscopic often kill honesty. Without meaning to, the people go under as well. I'm not saying analytical discussion is bad, simply being aware that it can be a smoke screen to avoid actually walking the talk.
LIGHTER CONVERSATIONAL RAMBLES
In the rush to feel accepted by our peers we sometimes say and do things we don't truly believe, or on a surface level opinions sweep us into a current away from graceful speech.
Illustration: let's just say you're in on a talk dissing American comfort food to kingdom come, and I don't mean the kingdom of heaven. The conversation is funny and everyone is salty about those who prefer pork chops, mashed potatoes, and apple pie. Everyone feels a bit on high, because whenever you stomp on something it does put you up for a little while.
Everyone in the group might love Indian or Thai food with a passion, or have tried other cuisines of the world. Perhaps our palates are more expansive and we connect on that point, but have we stopped to consider that American comfort food holds a legitimate and delicious corner of the world table? Perhaps that new person we're trying to friend really loves a good meatloaf and mashed potato meal.
Suddenly, we didn't just stomp on American food, we stomped on a person. We may say that they're being too sensitive, or everyone is entitled to opinions, but (1) that just disproved our own point about opinions and (2) you try having someone wipe mud all over one of your favorite hobbies, past times, opinions, or tastes and see if it doesn't sting. At the very least, you won't be inclined to be honest or open at this point. Good conversation should leave room for differences.
I personally don't have a discerning palate when it comes to coffee but have friends who can taste the passion berry notes blooming on the mountain slopes, after a morning rain in Ethiopia, over which lovers kissed. They often speak in a language unknown, and make marvelous cappuccinos and lattes of which we plebeians sing unedcuated praises.
Guys, there's plain Colombian chemex coffee at my house. If they were wont to disdain any coffee other than the aforementioned kind, it would put a serious damper on any coffee making at my house when they come. When they allow room for other, perhaps lesser, tastes and lifestyles - and I get over my insecurity (or ego) about the difference - we can probably have a good time over sub par coffee.
Grace is the beginning of authenticity in relationships.
Human beings must speak with grace. We have to leave room in our conversations for other ways of thinking, and for people to grow, or we end up creating a culture of fear.
Fear, the Authenticity Slayer
Fear slays anything good. A precursor to enjoyable conversations is relaxation; get anyone from a stranger or friend to relax and you're halfway to a great time.
Relaxation also means letting down our guard for other people.
Authenticity is not so much what we say but in what we let people see. Sometimes we use authenticity as a shield, speaking that which sounds real, but is in fact hiding out. Let me explain.
In the banter dissing American comfort food I'm probably thinking, "Meatloaf and mashed potatoes and apple pie are amazing!" But, it's easier to extol a good green curry, also on the favorites list, than to make the choice to bring another perspective too it that might get trampled. Not always a bad idea to save one's hide if no particular good will come of saying what you think, but if all we ever do is agree for the sake of acceptance we lose a vital part of our uniqueness to the people around us. Plus, it's an insult to real friendship.
Feeling out of your comfort zone is a marker of authenticity. That could be making small talk to segue into real discussion with a stranger. It could be telling your friends that you actually like pork chops and mashed potatoes. It could be telling a close friend of something that you are deathly afraid to face right now. It could be humiliation.
THE DAY I STOPPED LISTENING
For 29 years I thought I was being authentic, and was doing pretty good for as deep as my understanding extended.Then one day I woke up and realized most of my closest friends had never heard me speak raw, deep, and with shame; instead glossing over pain, diminishing hurts, diffusing lies because I didn't want them to see me as a broken human.
They hardly ever saw a real me. Yes, they saw parts of me deemed manageable: the dorky sense of humor, occasional wisdom, and steady head, but not the one with tears in her eyes, or anger at a life circumstance or person who wronged me, or sneaky-subconscious-shame because I haven't figured out how to get married and everyone else has (an exaggeration).
One day, of no particular note, I sat with an old friend and talked about myself. The unedited self. It wasn't raw, but it lasted about half an hour and was probably the first time in my life I didn't say two sentences and then direct the limelight back to them. It was hard to sit there and articulate about personal things for that long, but when it was done, it was good.
For one of the first times, I accepted the gift of someone listening to me.
It's a wonderful gift, and I wonder, do you allow people to give you this gift? Do you in return give them vulnerability? Not for what fits what you wish the narrative would look like, but what things actually look like on the inside of you. Obviously it takes a deal of courage and trust, but this is why it should appropriate a matching level of friendship.
Conversations have so many heights and depths and the real you is a good contribution on every single one of them. Bring yourself, the good with the uncomfortable, to the table.
P.S. I still love listening; one of my favorite pastimes. I'm just glad to say it's a little more balanced now. L.E.