Thoughts from the Therapy Chair with Joe Martino: The Importance of Listening

Listen to those we disagree with and whom disagree with us so that we can benefit.

I am afraid we have lost the plot regarding human interaction.

We have somehow come to the place where we take almost any criticism or disagreement as hate or attack. Think that hot dogs are the best ballpark food, and someone offers up nachos?

You can dismiss them as a hater. Or better yet, just call it an attack. We no longer seem to be able to handle having our opinion questioned. Perhaps, because we’ve come to the place where we all believe that we are subject matter experts in almost everything.

With a few clicks on our keyboard, we can all have an “informed expert” opinion.

Perhaps, because we’ve been spoon-fed that whatever we feel or believe is both legitimate and accurate, no matter what contrary evidence may exist. 

Perhaps, because we all like to whine a little bit. I was talking to a fifteen-year-old about this idea. One of her statements rung louder than others to me. “Everyone has somewhere that they want to complain about how much harder their life is than another person’s life. Because being a victim or a martyr is just appealing to everyone on some level.”

I think that might actually be closer to the real reason than anything I offered above. Because to some extent, they all lead to her idea.

We are all tempted by greed and narcissism. I know that idea isn’t popular today. Still, we must see humanity’s complexity, which means that we are all broken and have whole parts. Ignoring the broken pieces is detrimental to our overall health.

If we are going to be healthy people, we must distinguish between attack and disagreement. And I think this is a need on both sides of the communication. Let’s talk about both sides for a moment.

The person speaking should:

  • Avoid attacking the person with inflammatory words. Phrases like, “You’re part of the problem” or “Are you too stupid to see what’s being done…” are unhelpful. A few moments ago, I read a comment by a person calling someone else uninformed and stupid. That’s not helpful, and it is reasonable for the other person to feel attacked in such a situation.
  • Deal with the person’s actions. This one seems almost too easy, but I often see people being attacked instead of their stated idea or action being questioned.
  • Embrace humility. Present what you think is going on with humility. You are entitled to believe whatever you want, and only a fool thinks that they are never wrong.
  • Use the kindest, most generous words possible. There is never a good excuse to be a mean person. Use words that are kind and helpful.
  • Acknowledge the other person’s beliefs and feelings. You don’t have to validate them, but acknowledging them is almost always universally helpful.

The person listening should:

  • Seek to understand the other person’s perspective. This will allow you to use the kindest words possible when you are the one speaking.
  • Distinguish between what you know and what you think you know. So often, when we are listening, we have thoughts that run through our heads as facts, but in reality, they are assumptions or interpretations. As such, they need to be vetted. So many times, there have been things that I thought were true, but when I tried to verify those thoughts, it turned out I was wrong. The person meant something else entirely.
  • Ask yourself what is the most generous and gracious way to interpret what the other person is saying?
  • Let the other person finish their sentences completely. This one seems so simple but can be so tricky. Allow the other person to complete and maybe ask a few clarifying questions.

When we start seeing the difference between disagreements and attacks, we open ourselves to the best possibilities of growing and maturing. We give ourselves the best chance to have true community and intimacy. Very few people like being told they are wrong, but the best communicators embrace the reality that they may be inaccurate. They embrace the value of someone pushing against their beliefs.

This doesn’t mean we have to engage in every disagreement. Sometimes, it makes sense to just step away from a conversation.

This is especially true in times of fear. As our fear kicks off, our reasoning processes tend to shut down. They’re not needed in flight, fight or freeze mode. But that can be hurtful to our emotional health.

I hope that we can come to a place where we can disagree with someone and respect their humanity. I hope we can disagree and even passionately disagree while still accepting that humans are beautiful, complex messes.

May we all engage in behaviors that build each other up.

An ancient writer wrote that we should only allow words to come out of our mouths that will build others up and benefit those who are listening. I dream of a society where that is the usual way. When we dismiss everything that disagrees with us as an attack, we give away the opportunity to benefit all those who listen to us, including ourselves.

Joe Martino is a counselor with Joe Martino Counseling Network.  He has locations in Lowell, Grand Rapids, Greenville, and Grandville.  For more information about Joe and his business, check their website or Facebook page.  He and the rest of the counselors and staff are eager to help those in need.

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