Listen Instead of Correcting Others: What We Gain and Give

Two friends talking

“When you judge another, you do not define them. You define yourself.” ~Wayne Dyer

I have a tendency to want to show off what I know, and in the worst cases, correct other people.

Instead of listening and connecting I unconsciously try to sell to others an image of myself that I wish to project. Some part of me believes that if people are impressed with me then they’ll like me and be interested in my knowledge and point of view.

In this way I fall into the trap of constructing the false self. This is the person I wish for others to see, a person without vulnerabilities, incorrect knowledge, or who makes mistakes. A thing that is more of a product than a person.

Many of us fashion these false selves not only as an idealized version of ourselves, but also to keep other people’s judgments of us at bay. Before we realize what has happened, we have made our skills and knowledge into weapons that we wield on others while all the while we hide our true selves behind a shield. Without planning to, we have declared war.

The constructed, false self is a one-way gate. Like a character in a stage play, the false self puts sights and sounds out to the audience while all the while it stands behind the fourth wall of separation from the observers. The audience sees the character, but the character doesn’t see the audience.

I have someone in my life who deals with a fairly severe mental illness. Through most of my life I have tried to help him by showing him what was “wrong” with his thinking and actions. I wanted to use my logic and knowledge to set his perceptions straight.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was mostly lecturing him. I did not listen and understand his point of view, but instead stayed behind my shield and wielded my weapons of logic at him. I thought I was being a good influence.

Constructive influence, though, flows through positive human connections. When we judge others we sever those connections and directly destroy our chances of influencing others with our best information and ideas.

But real, positive influence travels in both directions. Discovering wisdom works best as a collaboration formed through the conduit of relationships. There is give and take and neither person needs to be “the right one.”

When we give others space to make mistakes, to have different skills and expertise than our own, then we also give ourselves space for the same things. No one of us is an expert at everything, but when we come together we close the gaps into a working whole.

A few years ago, while preparing for a volunteer program, I took some training in listening. I learned that it’s more valuable to reflect back what people say, and to show understanding of them without judgment.

I learned that if I showed understanding of the other person’s feelings and thoughts, that alone would ease their burden and do worlds of good.

I learned that acceptance and understanding aren’t necessarily the same things as approval and agreement.

We needn’t be afraid that we are compromising our own views or knowledge when we simply choose to understand another’s. In fact, the openness of understanding can strengthen our own point of view.

We must receive what we wish to give and give what we wish to receive. If we want to be listened to, then we must listen to others. If we want to be valued for what we know, then we must value others for what they know.

And if we want to be forgiven and loved, then we must forgive and love others.

Lately I’ve been applying my new listening skills in conversations with my mentally ill loved one. I allow myself to relate to difficult things he experiences and have even tried to be brave enough to be honest when I see a bit of myself in him, when I see the same passions, fears, and mistakes.

The funny thing is that by backing off I’ve gained more of his trust. By not pretending to have all the answers for him, I’ve strengthened our bond.

Now I only give him my opinion if he asks for it. Sometimes this comes after a long spell of silence, when we are simply being together. And I’m honest enough to tell him when I don’t have a clue how to answer his question.

And you know, I’ve learned a whole lot from him, too.

Photo by pedrosimoes7

About David Munger

Dave Munger is a software user interface designer living and working in Chicago. In his spare time he screws things up and learns a lot from fixing them. It’s a hobby. He recently launched his own blog at inneryonder.com.

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