Posts Tagged ‘listening’

Thank goodness for Jonathan Carroll and his Facebook page, because whenever my brain is feeling slow, I take a look at what he has posted recently to get my thoughts flowing again. Recently he shared this quotation:

People will kill you over time, and how they’ll kill you is with tiny, harmless phrases, like “be realistic.” – Dylan Moran

This makes me think about how subtle an influence a person can have on us. So subtle, in fact, that often no one in the room is conscious of what’s happening. A comment here, a snort there, and a little body language thrown in for good measure, and our thoughts and emotions can be deeply affected:

“I’m not good enough.”

“Maybe I’m being stupid.”

“My career/life goals aren’t important/valid/valuable.”

It’s so easy to diminish, to de-motivate, to plant the seeds of doubt, to make someone feel lesser. It’s so easy to neglect to listen to what other people have to say in favor of listening to ourselves. It’s so easy to sting someone without even thinking about what we are saying.

As a writer, I believe that words matter, perhaps more than most. The written word matters, and the spoken word matters. Body language, tone of voice, and mannerisms matter, all contributing to the overall message that someone is communicating.

Because I think words matter, I pay a lot of attention. I listen. I think about what people say to me. I think not only about the words used, but about the manner of their delivery, the context, and other circumstances that are relevant.

For many years, I internally chided myself for my “sensitivity.” But now I recognize what a gift it can be. Because if I’m paying attention, then I can notice more of those small messages, many of them negative, that I receive from other people. And then I can work to counter them and lessen their impact.

Words matter. (Photo Credit: felipe_gabaldon via Compfight cc)

That’s why choosing carefully the people with whom we spend a lot of time is so important. Not only will they be affecting the activities we participate in, the subjects we talk about, and even the amount of food we eat, but they will be sending subtle unconscious messages that have a real impact (potentially either positive or negative) on our moods, our world views, our self esteem, and what we think is possible for ourselves. The more we notice, the more we can make deliberate decisions about whether to spend time with people who make us feel awesome, energized, and supported for being who we are, or whether to spend time with people who make us feel tired, drained, ignored, and not enough. The choice is clear, but only if we are able to track what’s going on.

Words matter. Our environment matters. The choice to be kind matters.

What tiny, harmless phrase have you taken to heart lately? What would you rather hear?

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I started having insomnia a few months after my mom was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer.

I had moved away to college in late September and she was diagnosed, I believe, in November. By springtime, I was having trouble sleeping. A high school classmate of mine had died in a motorcycle accident that winter. A fellow student in my Romantic Literature class was hit by a car and killed while jogging. The news from home wasn’t good. I felt surrounded by death.

I shared a bedroom at the time, and even though I lived in an apartment, one of my other housemates always slept on the fold-out couch in the living room with her boyfriend. When I was awake in the middle of the night, there was nowhere to go where I could cry or turn on the lights and read. So instead I’d go outside and sit in the dark on the front stoop or on top of the picnic table, a box of tissues by my feet.

There is a special kind of hush that happens at three or four in the morning. The stillness of the night while I sat on that stoop spoke of shutters being closed over the normal world while everyone slept. Everyone but me. I couldn’t sleep, so instead I sat. I thought about my mom and I wondered why people have to die and I wondered if I hoped hard enough maybe she would be okay after all and I wished I could sleep so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.

In the daylight hours, it’s not quite so difficult to keep the dark and grief-stained thoughts at bay. But in the shadows and the quiet, there’s no longer anything blocking them from view.

I was eighteen.

Photo by Elina Linina.

Ever since that time, there have been nights when I can’t sleep. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m too excited about the day I’ve had or the trip I’m taking in the morning or I’m worried about tomorrow or I haven’t allowed enough downtime before going to bed. Sleeping at conventions can be tricky for these sorts of reasons. Sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m sick or in physical pain.

And sometimes I can’t sleep because my heart hurts. These are always the worst nights. They remind me of those nights on the stoop, sobbing quietly for an incomprehensible loss I could do nothing to stop. I used to hope that if I cried enough, I’d create enough space for the sleep to come.

There are times when insomnia visits for a reason. Sleep stays away so that I pay attention. Often it’s something I don’t want to pay attention to, but my body has its own ideas of what’s good for me. Sometimes it’s even right.

What is insomnia like for you?

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I still remember the first time I realized that people who sound perfectly confident about what they’re saying are not always correct. It was sometime in my mid-20s (apparently I was a slow learner?) when I was in conversation with a friend of mine, and he said something about Yosemite National Park that I knew was incorrect. Mind you, it wasn’t something I thought I might have gotten wrong or was otherwise unsure about. I’d been going to Yosemite every year since I was born, so I was ninety-nine percent certain that my friend was stating something factually inaccurate.

However, when I offered my expertise on the subject, he didn’t admit to not being sure himself. To every outward appearance he was just as confident about his correctness as he had ever been. And at that moment I had an epiphany: People could be telling me inaccurate information all the time, and unless it was a subject in which I had personal expertise, I would never know the difference.

Dinosaurs and humans coexisted … um, right? No, but 41% of American adults think they did.

We hear a lot about how information on the internet may or may not be very reliable, but the internet is merely boosting the signal of an older problem. How do we know, not when people are maliciously lying to us (that’s another problem, but thankfully a much rarer one for me personally), but when they are misrepresenting their knowledge? And worse still, how can we avoid passing this ignorant knowledge onwards ourselves? (Incidentally, Wikipedia has an entire list of common misconceptions. Of course, you have to ask yourself: how much of this list is accurate? And the nature of the beast is revealed in all of its pernicious twistings.)

Another aspect of the problem is oversimplification. It seems to me that while my life can be very complicated, that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of complications in the greater world. And yet it’s so easy to think about an issue or subject for only a minute or two and pronounce upon it, failing to delve into the deeper implications, the bigger picture, the history, or what-have-you.

I’ll give an example that I see a fair amount. I happen to know something about the geopolitics of the Middle East. Do I have a complete understanding? No. Am I an expert? No again. Why not? Because the situation is complicated, and because it’s difficult to find reliable sources of information, and because I live far away and therefore can’t rely on firsthand experience. Also because I come from a different country and bring my own cultural expectations into my reasoning, and in spite of my best efforts, I’m sure some of that leaks through to color my opinions and observations.

However, I do know enough to be able to tell when others know what they’re talking about (and when they don’t). I also know enough to notice when people seem to have formed opinions about situations in the Middle East even though they lack the background information necessary to develop a deep understanding. I don’t mind so much when I speak to people who have different opinions from me on this topic (on the contrary, it’s such a complicated topic that I welcome the chance to learn more, especially from those who are more personally involved and/or affected).  However, when it becomes obvious that they’re not likewise trying to educate themselves even when they lack information (which is easy to lack when you live half-way around the world), well, then once again ignorance has won. And it will spread.

I’m worried because this isn’t an inspirational post, and I like the inspirational posts the best. But for a problem like this, I don’t have any real answers. I try to do my best to be accurate in the information I pass along, but sometimes I make honest mistakes. I try to educate myself about the issues I care about, and I try not to profess knowledge I don’t have and instead ask questions to improve my understanding. (Six years ago, I knew nothing at all about the Middle East, for example.) When I hear information I know to be incorrect, I try to speak up, even though I often don’t feel like being assertive.

But in an information-heavy world, there will always be information that is inaccurate or incomplete. And there will always be people who aren’t interested in listening.

What do you think about this problem? How do you deal with it in your daily life?

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