Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.
Jane Goodall

With any human interaction, when someone is talking, someone is hopefully listening. That is the beginning of a dialogue. While we have all been taught in school to not interrupt when someone is talking, to always be thoughtful in the words we use, and to reply truthfully, there are many emotional obstacles that could prevent us from doing so while talking with someone. In Active Listening (Part 1), I presented guidelines to become a better listener by learning to focus and be more attentive to the speaker. In this post, I focus on obstacles that we might experience while communicating with someone, which are directly interfering with the depth and the purpose of a conversation. I hope that this will give some of us more insight and ways to improve our communication style as a whole.

The first obstacle to a healthy conversation is when we take someone’s words personally. That type of behavior pushes our brain to go through all kinds of feelings and we might often feel attacked. For instance, during a conversation, we hear a critique, a comment, even a benign opinion about something or someone and feel that it goes against our values (what we think, believe in, or feel). Consequently, we often reply with negative emotions and do not consider the words we use, the other person’s perspective or whether or not what we are saying is relevant to the conversation. We are in “defense mode” and feel that we need to justify ourselves. Replying with an emotional mind will start conversations where we say things we might regret, things that are not true or things we don’t mean. If we know that we have a tendency to get emotional during a conversation or to take things personally even when it does not directly concern us, it could be useful to take a step back, to listen to what the person is saying without trying to directly reply. Such conversations are a great way for us to start questioning ourselves: How do I feel and why?

The second emotional obstacle is believing that the other person is wrong in his or her reasoning. This is where perspective comes in and helps us realize that there is always more than one truth. As a side note, I am only targeting conversations where people share opinions and feelings, and not academic knowledge. Perspective is an interesting topic and will soon have its own post. To put it simply, having perspective is accepting the fact that there are other ways of thinking, feeling, and doing things regardless of our own values. In order to understand that, we need to accept the fact that everybody comes from a different background with different values. Therefore, their way is right for them as much as ours is right for us. So next time someone tells us something that just feels so wrong, let’s listen to them and understand where they come from. If we have a hard time, let’s ask questions. Let’s do our best to understand why they feel or think a certain way. It’s only when we do our part of the listening that they will be willing to meet us half way to listen to our point of view.

The third reason, and we certainly have all experienced it once, is that over time some people have become emotional triggers for us. When we see them, hear about them, or talk to them, we start becoming either agitated, or uninterested in having a conversation with them. Some family members, coworkers, friends, or even a spouse could shut us down or create feelings of resentment, anger or guilt before a conversation ever begins. In this case, listening seems hard and sometimes even impossible depending on how deep and for how long the triggers have been present. In this case, it is important to identify these people, become aware of the issue and the triggers that accompany them. Again, we need to ask ourselves, how do I feel when talking to this person and why? If we believe that we feel resentful, guilty, depressed or any other disruptive feeling, are we willing to work on it? These are all questions that only WE can answer after becoming fully aware of the issue.

Ultimately, actively listening to someone is work. It takes effort to know ourselves, to accept that others are equally entitled to their ideas and opinions and that by listening to them, we can learn not only about their background and understand their perspective, but more importantly, we can learn about ourselves and our ability to communicate better.

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