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What If You Truly Could Not Listen?

Warning: This post is intentionally “in your face” and has a dual purpose. I’d genuinely appreciate it if you’d consider helping to spread the word so we can all talk more openly about these issues.

As a coach to emerging leaders, sales professionals and executives, I hear plenty of reasons why we “can’t” actively listen to others. I understand these reasons, and I have been guilty of rationalizing in the same ways. In our time-pressured jobs with high value placed on multi-tasking, we seldom tune out the distractions and genuinely focus to listen attentively to others.

Even so, I’m not prepared to endorse the myth that we can’t listen. I’m willing to give others a mulligan for an occasional listening lapse, but a pattern of poor listening and a series of “I just can’t listen” excuses is unforgivable.

The truth is, you can listen. You’re just choosing not to, which is arrogant and selfish. It’s also self-limiting – do you have any idea how much you’re missing out on when you don’t listen?

Let’s take a look at what it’s like for someone who truly cannot listen. Unless you have the same level of disability when it comes to listening, then you may need to rethink the lie you’re telling yourself every time you say “I can’t listen.” (By the way, I’m referring to a listening disability and not a hearing disability in this post.)

Try to imagine listening to others if, simultaneously:

  • Your mind produces a chorus of voices that constantly whisper, hum and buzz. To you, these “voices in your head” are no different than voices you hear in reality. Try as you might, you can’t force these voices into the background because they demand your attention. These aural hallucinations sometimes become louder and more persistent, magnifying every emotion you feel and judging your every thought. Their tone is self-loathing and, sometimes, they encourage you to hurt yourself. You try to argue and reason with these voices but they often crowd out your own thoughts.
  • You have a tic disorder that causes your body to release energy in repetitive movements. You physically need for that energy to be released. Your tics are repetitive and urgent. They manifest in different ways, and you may not notice when they are happening (until someone looks at you funny or asks you about them). Sometimes they come out as facial spasms or twitches like opening your eyes extra wide, blinking rapidly, stretching your mouth or extending your chin. On another day, they may be rapid shoulder shrugs, jerks of one side of your body or a kicking motion. They might even be verbal and come out as a grunting sound over and over again. In social situations, you will do whatever it takes to mask or suppress these tics. Doing so, even when taking prescription meds that help, requires extreme concentration and causes physical discomfort.
  • You have extreme anxiety disorders that cause you to feel there are real and imminent dangers lurking around every corner. You are always watchful, cautious, trying to stay one step ahead of what could happen. You patrol your environment and never feel safe and secure. Your attempts to control every single aspect of what’s happening around you are exhausting. Your anticipation of the possibilities (regardless of how realistic or unrealistic they may be) causes you to take defensive actions no one else understands. You are compelled to constantly check your surroundings, assess subtle changes, recalculate your next move.

What if, for you, every minute of every day was crowded with palpable fears and ceaseless concentration on staying safe, suppressing tics, and reasoning with those voices?

Then you could say that you cannot listen.

This is what my son is experiencing. He can’t focus on what’s being said because he is consumed by these inescapable and obsessive thoughts.

As a result, classroom learning is impossible for him. One-on-one, for short periods of time in a small setting, he can do marginally better. Transitioning from one place to another is a source of agitation because there are so many variables he can’t control or anticipate. Managing social relationships is challenging. One-on-one, for short periods of time, he does okay. In a controlled and familiar environment, he can handle small group interactions, too. But as soon as something new, different or transitional is introduced, he’s again pushed beyond his capacity.

My son alternately views listening to others as a necessity and a luxury. He tries very hard to listen when there is a compelling reason to do so. But he’s doing triage as he listens. As soon as he realizes that what’s being said is not immediately related to his survival in the moment, he shifts back to the more urgent and pressing needs of concentrating on the environment, his tic suppression and what his voices are whispering.

He’s not alone. What I’ve described is true for many who experience mental illness. Understanding what it’s like for them is important if we are ever to reach and treat them. We can’t stigmatize these symptoms and make them shameful to share.

And we can’t make excuses that diminish others’ reality. Saying “I can’t listen” is lazy and untrue for most of us. It would be like me saying “I can’t walk up the stairs” when, in fact, I just don’t want to exert myself. Every time I say that, I diminish the legitimacy of the statement. If we all said it so often that it became acceptable and widely believed, then there would be no distinction between those of us who are able-bodied and those who truly cannot walk up those stairs due to genuine physical limitations.

“I can’t listen” is a lie. You can. You should. Unless you are legitimately incapable of listening to others, please stop saying that. You’re making it more difficult for my son’s plight to be taken seriously. Educators and others hear his “I can’t listen” the way they’d hear it from me or you since we’re all saying (and buying into) this fallacy.

Listen to your customers, your colleagues and your followers. Listening matters. It’s worthwhile. It’s not something you should ever take for granted.

Beyond the day-to-day listening you can do, consider listening to the cries for help that are coming from the mentally ill we all co-exist with. We mustn’t continue ignoring what they experience and minimizing their struggles.

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CONNECT 2 Lead graphic smalThis blog post is part of the CONNECT! Community’s August focus on connecting by listening. As a leader, you will be able to more effectively CONNECT2Lead when you actively and empathically listen to others with an intent to understand. Be sure to subscribe to the CONNECT2Lead Blog for weekly tips and techniques on leading with a people first approach. To God be the glory!



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