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When You Can’t Bear to Listen

And a final question from The Listening Post, with a slight twist from a skillful reader:

“I have to be physically present and look like I’m listening to someone I’d rather not deal with, but can’t get away from. Is it okay to tune this person out and just act like I’m paying attention?”

I wish I could tell you it was okay. Certainly, we’ve all tuned people out on occasion, even while pretending to provide an audience. But it’s not good for you to pretend to be listening; it’s not good for your own sense of sincerity or authenticity to be successful at faking it. Better to be there and be real, even if you’re annoyed, because that puts you on your way to being simultaneously real and more tolerant.

Shift your goal. Don’t expect a scenario of mutual benefit, the give-and-take of dialog. Think of the interaction or the lack thereof as class time — you’re learning from the situation. On an extracurricular basis, you can contemplate why you’re still in relationship with this person. But meanwhile, consider any one of these topics for the subject of your term paper:

  • Can you serve as a role model for someone else? Whether it’s your colleagues or staff, your siblings, your kids, or your neighbor — show respect and pleasantness. You never know who might be inspired by the example you set, and who might, someday, return the courtesy to you, or pass it on to someone else who needs to be heard.
  • Can you use the exercise to strengthen your “listening muscle”? Keep in mind that your listening muscle isn’t located in your ears — it’s between them.
  • Can you gain new insights into humanity — the speaker’s, your own, others like either of you — and understand what you resist and why?
  • Can you increase your empathy and compassion? We all benefit from our own practice, and we all benefit from anyone’s practice. Seeing (hearing!) from the other person’s point of view expands your capacity for understanding. Building up your stores of patience, kindness, and equanimity will pay off over and over.

The study of humankind is hard work, particularly when we have a dislike for a particular specimen. But you can always take a retest for extra credit.

Onward and upward,


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