“You are responsible for what you hear, just as you are responsible for what you wear!”
-Half-joking comment I made to a friend in a thread on Facebook this week
Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who did not seem to ‘get’ what you were saying?
Have you ever been accused of ‘not getting something’ or ‘not listening properly’ to someone?
What goes on in these situations?!
I know I have been in situations where people have heard the opposite of what I was actually trying to say. Some of this may be to do with not living in my country of birth (I am Dutch, but I live in London and Sweden, I also teach in the US). I am forever navigating linguistic boundaries.
Years ago I once called a little girl here in London (a friend of my eldest son) a princess, because she was wearing a beautiful dress and tiara. In Dutch this is the greatest compliment you can give a little girl, but her mother gave me a sharp look and said: “What do you mean, she is no diva, she is lovely!” I did not know, at that time, that princess equates diva (this was nearly two decades before Megxit!) However, this is just a cross-cultural misunderstanding. It has taken me fully two decades to grasp many of the finer nuances of my adopted everyday language (English), speaking as the author of three books in English!
The thing is: if other people have sometimes misunderstood completely what I was trying to say, the reverse must be true as well: I have misunderstood people in turn. There may have been compliments I never ‘cashed in’, there may also have been rude comments I didn’t even grasp. It is likely!
Often a given situation does not involve a ‘princess’ (or a protective mother) and things soon get more serious. How does this happen? What is going on?
This process is related to our childhood and something psychologists call conditioned responses. The cure lies in becoming aware of our emotional rabbit holes and using our imagination skilfully, fearlessly.
People who enjoyed a reasonably secure childhood (with good enough parents, to quote paediatrician Donald Winnicott), providing good care for them (meaning that their core needs were met), tend to do better in these situations. They master the ability to hold on to different perspectives (their own, yours, perhaps other viewpoints too), while listening. They can make choices in terms of how they hear something, and they will also listen closely to what people are not saying. What would you expect to hear that is noticeably absent?
However, people who have had a “bumpier” upbringing (and not spent years actively healing challenging, traumatic, perhaps even abusive childhood conditioning) will struggle to do this.
In childhood we develop many conditioned responses. This human adaptation is a blessing because in every single moment we are bombarded with information, demands, sensory overload. It is essential to develop an autopilot function, which navigates some of that for us, without involving our active (waking, conscious, decision-making) mind. However, serious problems occur when these conditioned responses become so rigid, that we are not aware of them and do not realise another choice or option is even available to us. Ultimately this becomes very limiting, and it can really mess up our relationships with other people if we cannot ‘get over ourselves’.
Whenever we respond on autopilot in a dysfunctional way, we drop down a rabbit hole (or black hole). We lose the ability to choose our responses in freedom, with our sense of humour in gear.
I will give you an example from my own life: my own parents were very critical of me. They never took my side in any argument (with a friend, or with one of my brothers). Whenever a conflict occurred, they did not say: “What happened, please tell us your side of the story!” Instead they said: “What have you done this time?! Go apologise immediately!” Their response to my child self was obviously shaped by their own upbringing. I have learned not to blame them for this, I am just trying to illustrate how this process works.
The highly critical parenting style resulted in me developing the following set of conditioned responses:
- I felt I was always wrong whenever a difference of viewpoints occurred. The other person was always right and ‘innocent’ (any wrongdoing was always wholly and indisputably on my side of the equation).
- I felt responsible for everything going wrong around me, and by extension for any suffering I observed in others. I was so used to being scapegoated that I I’d lie in bed at night wondering if I had inadvertently caused a war or famine somewhere in the world.
This made it very hard for me to listen to a person talking about their struggles or problems, without feeling that I ought to ‘jump right in there’ (after all, if everything is ‘my fault’, I’d better get on with healing and fixing things, right?!)
I jumped into some crazy scenarios and lost a lot of time, energy and life force until one day it dawned on me: I had to actively learn how to release this behaviour. I had to make an agreement with myself about my personal boundaries and my operating principles in social interactions!
Here are the agreements I made with myself:
- When I have a disagreement with someone I am not always, automatically and unfailingly in the wrong. (There are two sides to any story!)
- When someone is suffering or working through a tough situation I can offer an appropriate amount of empathy and even offer some assistance, without making myself the solution to the problem (I have now learned that people learn the most from solving their own problems – with a little help from their friends, and in serious cases professional help too).
- Fair energy exchange is a great guiding principle for finding the balance
- Having discovered that there is a continuum between you and me, between right and wrong, I can start playing around with possibilities
- I can do Creative Listening!
How is this done?
The first thing you need to do is identifying what your ‘communication landscape’ or ‘communication body’ (if you prefer) is. Initially this is done after the fact. Eventually you will do this in real time.
Get out pen and paper and make a list:
- Why did I react so strongly when X made a joke, or unfortunate comment?
- What are my triggers (the things that instantly open a trapdoor beneath my feet and off I go, down my rabbit hole)?
- Can you remember a conversation or situation where things were about to go wrong, but someone diffused things with laughter or a well-chosen joke?
- Can you think of a person who does not ‘get’ you or frequently appears not to ‘get’ the message you are trying to get across? (You now know that due to conditioned responses their mental filing cabinet operates differently from yours!)
- Do some serious shadow work: make a list of all traits you can hardly bear in others – then find those things within yourself! Find a situation or moment where you behaved in a similar way. That takes the sting out of things pretty quickly. Make a commitment to keeping a journal for this purpose.
Now you are ready to do some creative listening!
Since I started paying close attention to this phenomenon, I feel far more empowered (because I can perceive a continuum of possibilities – not just one big black rabbit hole),
Here are some techniques I use
If a student says “You are a bitch of a teacher and the material you teach is shit”, rather than being offended (down the rabbit hole and licking my wounds for fully two weeks) I can disarm the person by saying: “Oh yes, I am an absolute bitch at times. If I do not prioritise self-care and communicate strong boundaries people will walk all over me! So here is a hard boundary – if you want to train with me, you are going to have respect it (you don’t need to like it and you don’t need to like me as a person either, but the boundary is non-negotiable!) As regards my work being “shit”: interesting you should say that, because shit is the best fertilizer on the planet. I am actively planting seeds for a new spiritual paradigm and those seeds need compost. Thank you for that metaphor for my spirit work, I will quote you on that!
Next time a person says something very offensive: laugh it off, it says nothing about you and all about them.
I sometimes misunderstand my children deliberately: “You were saying you really like a tidy bedroom? Well, excellent, because today every member of this family will spend two hours tidying and cleaning. (Fails to hear howls of protest).
There are always more options and possibilities than a human being sees. A very stressed or triggered human being has no choices, their conditioned responses take over.
I urge you to give yourself the gift of seeing the full continuum of options!
My upcoming third book (Medicine of the Imagination, Dwelling In Possibility) offers many exercises for regaining this freedom.
Guest Author. Imelda Almqvist
Imelda Almqvist is an international teacher of Sacred Art and Seidr/Norse shamanism (the ancestral wisdom teachings of Northern Europe)
Imelda Almqvist was a guest on Passion Harvest interview series.
The Episode is titled, ‘The Spiritual Survival Toolkit.’
Watch the Passion Harvest Interview with Imelda