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Shut up and listen: how to turn off the background conversations in your head

Monday, June 20, 2016 - 14:22

By AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Samantha Johnson

“Listening is a positive act: you have to put yourself out to do it.” David Hockney

What do you think about when you’re engaged in conversation with others? 

Odd question?

Right now you’re thinking that it depends on what the conversation is about, surely?

Sometimes it does.  But, is this always the case?

Think about how you think about when you are listening to someone else. 

Think about what you tend to think about. 

Reflect on what goes through your mind when you are listening to another person. 

Are there thoughts that are habitual for you?  Do you find that the same thoughts are often floating through your head?

Let me give you an example.  Think of the type of person who tends to believe that they are right and others are wrong most of the time. You might think of people you know who have this particular thought running through their head quite often.  They could be engaged in any number of conversations with any number of people and often find themselves thinking, ‘I’m right and you are wrong.’

This tendency might result in them appearing argumentative or challenging to engage with. And they may or may not be aware of this tendency and how problematic it can be.

This is not to suggest that it is problematic to have this thought at any point in time.  Not at all. 

There may indeed be situation where you are right and another person is incorrect. But this can be problematic if this is a habitual thought process.  In other words, when someone believes this to be the case all or most of the time, which is unlikely to be accurate, then this is a problem.  These people may interpret perspectives, opinions and expertise etc that differs from theirs, as incorrect, simply because it is differs from their perspective.

Adopting the tendency to think that you are right and others are wrong is one of the thought processes that can be a real blocker to communication and relationships.  But it’s not the only one.  There are others and they are all equally problematic.

These are ‘background conversations’.

Background conversations are conversations that we have inside our heads while engaged in conversations with other people.  They can be habits that stop us from engaging effectively with others. They are very common, in fact, we are all guilty of having these while in conversation with others.  It’s a good idea to become aware of them and focus on managing them.

It’s impossible to turn your mind off completely when you’re listening to someone else but it’s important to reduce some of your bad listening habits as Dr Samantha Johnson explains.

The common background conversations are:

I’m right and you are wrong.  If another person’s opinion, perspective, approach etc differs from ours, rather than accept it as legitimate, we reject it as incorrect and hold on tight to our own perspective. This can result in relationships breaking down, personal and professional development being restricted and communication failing.

Find the flaw.  This is a mindset that may result in someone having a tendency to identify errors or problems all or most of the time. It can be a tendency to assume that there is always a problem, an error or a flaw.  The risk of thinking this way all the time is that it results in regular criticism and negativity. Neither of these are conducive to effective leadership and can break down trust and relationships.

Not enough of something. Scarcity. There are many times in life and at work when there is insufficient time, or money, or resources, or effort, etc to achieve something desirable.  And on those occasions recognising scarcity is important.  But if this is a thought that becomes habitual, then it can be a blocker to communication and achievement. It can result in negativity or helplessness or blame. It is important to recognise when thinking this way is accurate and when it becomes a background conversation and a blocker to communication or achievement.

It’s not my responsibility. We have all met people who take great pride in pointing out what does not fall into their area of responsibility.  This is a common thought process that results in conflict and frustration and damages relationships. This is a thought process that needs to be well managed as it can reflect negativity, an unwillingness to step up or take responsibility and blame.

Them versus us. It is a normal human need to connect to groups of like-minded people.  Connecting to a group is not a problem.  But thinking that the people who are like you are better, or superior and those who differ are inferior, is problematic.  Judging others is commonplace but not helpful. Avoid the tendency to assume that the decisions that you and your group make, or your approach to work, is superior to those made by ‘them’, or others.

Background conversations offer a simple but powerful point of reflection. The question to ask yourself is this: what are the thoughts that I adopt that have become a habit and dominate my thinking when I’m engaged in conversation with others?  It is very unlikely that you don’t have thoughts when you’re listening to another person.  We are always thinking about something.  What is it?  And is it helping you engage and listen and be open to others’ ideas and perspectives or is it a blocker that you need to manage?

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to ‘fix’ others and get them to think like we do or be more like us. For the most part, this is a waste of time and a sure road to frustration and despair. 

Turn this energy and focus inwards.  Work on yourself. 

Turn off your ‘background conversations’ and you will soon realise that others are far less difficult than you thought.

AIM’s Effective Communication short course explores the personal impact cycle, and the role that communication plays in perception. You will learn a range of proven communication techniques and strategies, allowing you to develop and maintain successful workplace relationships.