The Perils of Listening Well

10 July 2010

I subscribe to an RSS feed called "The Introverts Corner" and the latest post was so good, that I thought it was amazing as to how well I could relate to the author. I was going to post some snippets of it, but all of it is good so I am going post the whole thing here, giving credit to the author of course. I figure I can't add much more to it than what she covered already.

The Perils of Listening Well

By Sophia Dembling

"It's like you have a sign on you that says, ‘Tell me about it,'" my husband has marveled.

Something about me attracts people with a lot to say.

Introverts tend to be excellent listeners. I'm certainly better at listening to chatter than producing it and I'm bumfuzzled by people I see in cars, on streets, at the supermarket, nattering away on their cell phones. What do they find to talk about so long and enthusiastically? I say what needs saying--usually a sentence or two--and then stop. Sometimes I lose interest in what I'm saying midway through a sentence and stop there (to my husband's irritation).

I am equally confused by people who corner me and launch, with gusto and a great deal of detail, into "The Complete Story of Me." It's happened at parties, art openings, in salons.

And telephones are particularly tough because a talkative person on the other end never even sees my mouth open and shut, open and shut, when I try to interject a thought. At least face to face, I have a chance of getting my three or four words in.

Introverts' listening skills can serve us well, and I am proud of mine. But one reason listening can be exhausting for us is that we pay attention. We listen hard.

And often, along with the words, I also hear in my head all the unspoken backstories, context, and motivations behind the monologue. When a story drags on, I start analyzing why this person might be telling me this now; what is the subtext? The woman telling a long story of vacation derring-do wants me to admire her. The one talking about the novel she will write someday is trying to convince herself she really will. The guy whose stories all seem to lead to "I was so drunk..." is crying for help. Maybe I'm right, maybe not, and certainly I'm not required to do anything with these assumptions. In a way, they just give me something to do when I'm tired of listening. (By the way, here's a great post on hearing subtext by fellow PT blogger F. Diane Barth.)

As a writer, I try to tell myself that people's stories provide fodder for my stories, but that only keeps me interested for the first 450,000 words or so. Otherwise, if I can't extricate myself, I amuse myself by looking for stories behind the stories. And if that doesn't work, I just retreat to the quiet place in my head and go into a sort of listening Zen, letting the words swirl around me.

This is, however, a newly acquired skill. I used to listen, and listen hard, no matter who was talking about what. But now I understand the toll that takes on me (and my desire to leave the house) and so I allow myself to check out when necessary, letting talkers talk without expending real listening energy. I doubt they even notice.

Copyright 2010 Sophia Dembling

Download the pdf version with pictures here.