Listening: the art of keeping on topic

Whether it is creative, journalistic, or a steady stream of thoughts, the dedication to daily writing guides my self-reflections. Today’s reflections stem from typical meandering through various on-line news sources, social media domains, medium articles, and scholarly articles. As I make my way through this article my points will become more and more succinct. Each paragraph is designed to continue upon previous writing based around the primary and original point of the article. Bear with me.

While some may argue that my point is obvious and thus mute, there is a distinct discrepancy that exists between those who seek knowledge for the betterment of the self through knowledge production and those who don’t. I think this discrepancy can, at times, be described in extreme examples within conversation. For example, I think this applies to discussions between political parties, advocates and dissenters of civil rights, but can also exist in general conversations. What is lacking between groups and within discussions is a clarified and highlighted individual purpose of the conversation. As an individual, one may approach another (be it a friend, colleague, adversary) with a certain assumption about the individual, which is often derived through various mediums (social, conversational, biographical), and in turn limit the conversation from the very beginning.

There are many ways in which you can understand an individual, particularly in today’s (modern) society. Basic understandings of a person usually start with social interaction. Since our idea of social is so broad today, this can involve face-to-face conversation, forced interaction(like at work or an event), on-line medias (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Medium, Quora, Reddit), and many more. There are, additionally, a multiplicity of ways in which one person can describe another person. In fact, within each interaction we make mental notes about the other person so that we can continually add to our understanding of that person, what makes them tick, the level of trust we can have in that person, etc. These mental notes add up in tallies, like themes. For example, if you talk to your friend about politics, the way they speak about a current presidential administration (a positive light or negative light) might influence you thus place them further along one side of the “political spectrum” (right leaning, left leaning, more neutral). This spectrum continues to alter as you gather more mental data on another person. Even in unrelated topics, like hobbies, you can thus deduct that because an individual might have a garden, they fair on the spectrum toward a cleaner environment.

Now, I think the analogy of the spectrum is important here. As they say, actions do speak louder than words. So the descriptions we make about others may become more and more complex over time the more discussions we have with them. People can lie, after all, and say something they might not actually believe. However, the fact that they might tend to a garden thus helps to shape all these complex perspectives about the individual and decipher more about their position in life. ALL these things, albeit confusing, are the things we take into consideration if we are actually listening to an individual. A personal issue might arise, however, once you realize that that person is not listening to themselves.

So what happens, then, if you’ve been listening all this time to another individual and realize that your conversation has been completely sidetracked from its original question? There may be a point in there, after all, because the sidetracked example was brought up, but it might be hard to figure out how you got there, why you got there, or what is going on even more. Over the past year, I have started to realize that this is where a lot of conversations end up. I can assure you that I have lost myself in conversation (faulting both sides of the communicators) and have left them cordially yet very frustrated that we weren’t capable of figuring each other out. As I am more practiced in conversation, I have been able to guide myself — like setting up the bumper lanes at the bowling alley. They aren’t up at the beginning of the conversation (because then it would be a lecture), but if we start towards the gutter, they just might pop up.

Personally, without a (personal) original purpose for conversation, or an intent to listen to the other individual, or guiding moral principles, I would be talking to the walls if it entertained me. In fact, every conversation I have has to have some kind of purpose. This concept of purpose applies to those who hate small-talk (small-talk-haters: “What’s the point?!”). Yet these conversations of small-talk still happen, and they happen for a couple of very specific reasons.

The first is, well, what else should you do when you don’t know another person? You can’t really divest so promptly into the great political landscape (we all know at least one person who does this) and would rather ease into a conversation. So, small-talk, is getting to know someone. You have to be able to trust this person, at some level, because when you enter a conversation, there are going to be topics that are chosen for a reason (even though you don’t know it yet), points to be made on those topic, and conclusions you reach that will add to the judgments of yourself and others that are continually refined on the daily. So if the first thing a person talks about is weather, I would consider them as nice. They are nice because they don’t want to make assumptions about another person by engaging a stranger in some lengthy debate they assume another person wants to join.

The second reason that you join in in small talk is this ever growing and insatiable desire for social inclusion and understanding. We cannot deny our innate desire for social interaction, and, more importantly, for the community to understand who we are. These interactions are not only educational (to learn about others experiences), adding them to the continual tally of experiences and stories, but they also hone in on specifics about yourself, mainly your morals and values, that you want to test and refine. So in each conversation you are consuming knowledge from other’s experiences for your own selfish reasons and then producing knowledge, also for your own selfish reasons.

I’d like to focus on this last point here, to conclude. It is important to realize the reasons why we chose to engage socially and initiate conversation in the first place. Most, if not all, reasons are indefinitely selfish. I use selfish here in a realistic sense and not a condemning one. We are, after all, only ourselves and can only inevitably protect ourselves. Any protectionary bubbles we build around ourselves (socially, economically, physically) don’t really exist. At the core of it all, we can only protect ourselves. So these social endeavors add to this personal and selfish survival (accumulation of world knowledge). If we are only engaging in conversation to build a knowledgeable shell around our ego then, well, stay online and at home. Stay with me.

Something happens when you start to listen. When you start to listen to another person, you realize the broader scope of your perspective. You start to hear the same things articulated just a little differently — personalized. You start to hear the same existential struggles, the same coping mechanisms that we all face. And here, and only here, do you start to engage in conversation for non-selfish reasons. Perhaps your life isn’t as bad as you thought, perhaps your problems are all average. But your level of engagement here is different not because you’re better than anyone else, but because you realize you are everyone else. Your selfish survival falls off when you realize that you are surviving and someone else hasn’t gotten there yet.

I listen to other people because my personal, overarching purpose in every conversation is to help someone else. That is not to say that I don’t need help, but that is my approach to conversation — online or otherwise. This has helped redefine my perspective, allowing for more of an open-mind than in the past, but also creates the opportunity for tough conversations. Current conversations are often arduous, lengthy, confusing, argumentative at times, but will usually end positively so long as we both listen. It may take a while — in fact it often does — but it’s worth it.

We only get to this point on our own time, but every word I’ve read, and every conversation I’ve had, has helped me to get to where I am. I realize that in order for my words to be heard, I must listen. In order to be understood, I must also understand.

Cheers and thanks for reading.