How to Listen Effectively

I recently had a conversation with a friend about listening that seemed worth writing up.

There are a bunch of things we humans like to do when other people are talking to us. Thinking up what we’re going to say in response is a big one, crunching social rules that we’re afraid of breaking can happen too. Trying to fit what the person is saying into our existing worldview, wondering what we’re going to have for dinner, having a reaction to something it reminded us of…

There’s nothing wrong per se about doing all that stuff, but it is distracting. Sometimes, this doesn’t matter much. Human conversations are often pretty compressible, and it often works out fine to make full use of our autocomplete and use our spare thought cycles elsewhere.

But there’s something else that we can do that involves actually listening to people, and it’s really useful to have that one in your toolkit.

I didn’t used to be able to do it much, at least not on command. People had to be saying something particularly interesting and novel to me to get my full attention, and even then I might not be able to stick with what they were saying.

I’m much better at it now, and I think it’s entirely possible for most people to develop the capacity easily.

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Relationship Tests and How to Respond

I want to try to point at and describe a particular phenomenon I’ve often seen in relationships: testing. While I’m more familiar with the ways women test men, and I would never claim the testing is on average totally symmetrical, certainly men test women as well. This post will be about the ways that most women seem to test most men.

By my standards, I’d say that a “communication” strategy qualifies as a test if the tester is exerting any optimization power in the direction of confusing her partner. Asking for one thing with words and a separate thing with body language and context is a very broad description of how testing often works.

Taking the request at face value and granting it may be a quite unsatisfactory response.

A classic test that the PUA community likes to talk about is one where a girl will ask a guy to hold her purse, but in fact respect him a bit less if he complies. An example that sees very central to me is that a woman will hit on, by accident, an emotion of hers that seems to throw her boyfriend off-balance, and then keep serving it up to him, basically looking to get a different, less reactive response.

Perhaps testing is the wrong word. These tests are usually at best semi-conscious. But I’m sticking with the word because it feels descriptive, it lands with me, and it’s landed with other woman that I’ve talked to. Empathy and introspection will reveal that no resolution that precludes the guy learning a new skill feels satisfying.

I spent some time this past week trying to pin down a particular dance move one guy I was talking to was missing. I tried unsuccessfully for a while to describe non-reactive compassion, but I’ll take a stab at it here too.

When we humans are suffering, typically there’s some tangle of meta-emotions. Single emotions are negative affect, but they rarely last long on their own. But add some shame into the mix and they become much harder to sort out. If I were overstating my claim a bit, I’d say that all extended triggers involve shame of some sort.

Luckily, this diagnosis suggests a solution. As a listener, if we can manage to communicate that we are as close as possible to fully aware of what’s going on with the other person AND we’re okay with it, it goes a long way. Curiosity, openness, reflecting back emotions and needs verbally and, more importantly, nonverbally, will show the awareness.

A calm, somewhat compassionate, perhaps even affectionately amused face will communicate that we’re okay with it. And building the muscle of being okay with ever more and weirder twisted human social/emotional strategies is one of the easiest ways to better the lives of those around us.

Note: If the suggestion that you’re testing your partner lands at all with you, I highly recommend acceptance and conscious strategy. For me at least, testing seems to be a pretty fundamental drive, for better or for worse. I can tell an ev-psych story that makes me okay with it an a naturalistic way, and once I’ve stopped feeling shame about it (see above), I can usually make sure the channel the drive in useful ways. Tests he can pass are fine. If he repeatedly doesn’t pass, I need to either make it easier and gradually ramp up the intensity to build the skill, or coach him somehow. Coaching in the moment or at different time are both workable.

Why Don’t We Empathize First?

Last week, I advised empathizing before advising. To attempt to remedy my hypocrisy, I will now empathize with the desire not to empathize. Because there really are a bunch of good and legitimate reasons we try other tacks. I’ll say some reasons I don’t empathize, so I’m not speculating too much about general motivations, but I think my reasons are common ones.

A big reason I don’t empathize is that when I perceive what seems like an obvious gap in someone’s thinking, or thing they could do to fix their situation, I get excited! I really do want other people to be happy and like helping them, and often I feel impatient about getting right to the heart of things. Plus, people are often asking for non-empathy things, such as advice. 

A related thing is that a big part of me likes conversations to be fast-paced. This goes along with being impatient, but it’s not the same thing. I like the energy and positive affect that comes from getting ideas out there quickly. I like conversations where everyone is interrupting everyone. Not everyone does, and I try to reign in this tendency of mine depending on context.

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Reminder: Empathize First!

If you’re talking to someone who is seeking support, it is incredibly useful to empathize before giving advice. This is true even if the person is nominally seeking advice. 

I know to do this, but in the past few weeks, it’s happened at least three times that I can think of that I’ve been in a group situation where someone who was visibly upset came to the group for support with a difficult situation, and then we all jumped in with advice. I won’t go as far as to say that the advice was useless. I know from experience that I can partly take in advice even when I’m triggered, and that I will often go home and think about what the people told me to do.

But empathy first is still the way to go for a few reasons.

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Conversation Rules for My Birthday Party

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The feedback I got indicated that the “ask a personal question” rule was the most helpful. 

I suspect that setting the intention to have good conversations in the first place was more effective than the specific ruleset, but it’s hard to know with these things. I consider the ruleset an alpha version, and I want to experiment much more with parties specifically designed to produce good conversations.

Musings on Nihilism and Metaphysics

Today’s post will be a bit weirder than the usual fare. Ever since a fun discussion at Ephemerisle, I’ve had a bunch of things on my mind related to many worlds, the simulation hypothesis, and anthropics in general. I don’t understand anthropics. As far as I can tell, no one does.

In the narrative of my relationship with others, they’re the one who are nihilistic, not me. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. We all have nihilistic parts. Mine is somewhat in shadow, mostly because of my judgments that it isn’t useful and that some of its conclusions are embarrassing or not prosocial enough.

I’ll explain how mine works. In fact, I’ll let my nihilistic part write a whole bit from its perspective. Here’s what it has to say:

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Still on Vacation, Self-leadership

The usual personal-growthy stuff is less on my mind than usual (despite having gotten some good related reading done), since I’m still in Maine on vacation with my family, and I once again didn’t get around to writing my usual Monday post. 

I’ll just throw out a brief story from my life.

I wrote a longish description of what “Self-leadership” means in IFS terms, but it bored me to reread it. Basically, it’s acting from your own best judgement, in a way that feels right and natural, devoid of “should” affect.

One of my historical patterns is getting upset to the point of crying when there’s something that seems important to me that I want from someone and am afraid I won’t get, particularly if I can’t “justify” the want. Unlike anger, sadness has been on my list of emotions to welcome and express for many years now now, which is one reason I’ve gotten a bunch of mileage out of using this pattern to short circuit angry feelings.

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Where I’ve Been, and a Brief Taxonomy of Bad Patterns

I didn’t post yesterday because I was traveling all day. I got up extremely early and took Lydia on a cab to SFO for a flight to JFK, then took another flight to Portland, ME, then another cab, then a ferry. Add in time being pushed three hours ahead, and that’s the day. I also didn’t have my computer last Wednesday-Sunday because we were at Ephemerisle, which we got home from late, with just barely enough time to nap and pack. The weekend before that, we went to Napa for my cousin’s wedding, and before that we were at the EA Summit…

Never being at home is pretty bad for getting writing done. But hanging out with interesting people all the time is good for generating ideas. I’ll sketch out at least one idea today and will state that it is my vague intention to get more writing done on this trip than I do in an average week.

There are many, many ways to divide up and classify destructive emotional patterns, but I’ll share one that occurred to me.

Some bad emotional patterns are, at their heart, crappy strategies. They’re likely outdated and originally formed by a less-resourced self, but I wouldn’t say they’re a result of trauma. The other month, I noticed that I was resisting changing my emotional state in the thick of discussions with Will because I wanted him to practice the skill of being the one to change the emotional tone.

It wasn’t working. Once I put my finger on what I was doing…I just asked Will to get better at that. And that seems to have worked pretty well. Much better than the other thing, anyway. I would call that one a bad strategy. There was no huge underlying childhood emotional pain to be processed. And I knew how to do something better, once I unraveled my reasons for not doing so. I’m actually pretty good at changing my state on command when my whole brain is on board with it.

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Being “Soulful”, Animal Training, and Finding Your Bottleneck

Ever since I had a conversation with Anna Salamon a few weeks about about “soulfulness”, my thoughts keep returning to the topic. I don’t have a great definition of what being soulful is, and I’d say that it probably lines up pretty well but not perfectly with most people’s intuitive definitions.

Anna explained it using a picture, which was helpful. I won’t try to replicate it here though, both because drawing pictures interrupts my flow significantly, and because I think I’ll personally get more value out of trying to use words.

I’ll take it for granted that humans have a bunch of subsystems. Insofar as this is just a metaphor, I’ve found it to be a very robust one. The subsystems don’t start out perfectly exchanging information–I can tell by observing my daughter that it takes a while for internal communication to come online. (For example, despite because physically able to clap, she seems so far unable to do so consciously. Whatever subsystem is hooked up with trying to make gestures for social reasons isn’t connected to the subsystem that moves her hands towards each other. On the other hand, she can point consciously.)

But, while communication doesn’t start out high bandwidth, that’s different from being actively blocked. That seems to happen to just about everyone, and it happens later. I’m a bit confused about how much of it happens when, but that point, while of practical importance to me, is not central to this argument.

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I’ve Been Resisting Unblending

There’s been a pattern going on in my own life recently that I’m going to try to articulate, mostly in hopes that doing so will help something shift.

There’s a sense in which I can always unblend from my current trigger, go into Self, get some more perspective, laugh at myself, and get into a good mood. But I don’t always want to. There’s something that feels newish about this way of being, and something that feels much older. I used to be much less emotionally aware, and I didn’t take the data from my emotions seriously. That changed in a big way a few years ago.

I am interested in the progression, even though I suspect it ultimately won’t inform my current situation that much. I think I used to be very practiced at stepping out of my emotions and saying something more aligned with my verbal loop goals and beliefs. Though it was also uneven. I was much more reactive and prone to emotional displays with my family than I ever was with my friends, and I remember knowing it was that way and wondering about it at least by the time I was 12 or 13. 

Then, I leveled up in things like NVC, IFS, and rationality, and I made a huge push to try to use those tools in difficult situations when I was feeling triggered.

I think I’m better than ever at those skills, since I still practice, but I’m also feeling a yearning, that I’m pretty sure has in fact been there all along to let my more triggered, vulnerable, reactive parts have more of a role in my life. But then, I have a decent amount of tension around this desire because intellectually I’m actually not all that convinced of the value of doing so, except in some more abstract sense that I’ve decided over the years to take my yearnings and intuitions more seriously.

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