Henry Fonda from Once Upon a Time in the West

Want To See A Good Movie? Just Listen. Really Listen.

You know how it feels when you feel heard and understood — it feels great. It feels like the person listening to you really, actually, no doubt about it, got “you” and what you were talking about. Being “heard” and “understood” is the gold in them thar hills of relationships. It makes a big deposit in the relationship bank account. It is what makes relationships rich.

  1. Internal mental commercial breaks. People talk at a rate of about 125 words per minute. But our brains can handle an incoming rate of 4–6 times that! That amount of “free time” leads to mind wandering. So you fill the time with other, usually unrelated, thoughts, like what’s for dinner. We all, all the time, have running dialogues in our head, completely tuned out to the person across from us, not hearing their words, just watching their lips move.
  2. Our own emotional and judgmental baggage. We all come preloaded with an arsenal of associations, biases, and triggers that are swirling around in the background of every conversation that can, when activated, make us deaf and blind to really understanding what someone is saying, especially the meaning or idea below the surface layer of their words. The person’s hair style, clothes, skin color, Democrat or Republican, their energy, who they know….. the list goes on and on.
  1. Turn Off Your Cellphone. Just like those ads they show in theaters before the film, put away your cell phone and any other source of distraction. Close the laptop and put it away and turn off the TV. If you’re just too mentally distracted or too tired, let the other person know and ask to talk at a later time letting them know that you want to give them your best, so right now would not be best.
  2. Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy the Movie.. With your now positive frame of mind, get centered in your body and head. This doesn’t mean you have to turn into a Buddhist monk and close your eyes and do a bunch of deep breaths and meditate for an hour. But it does mean pausing, noting the breath, maybe take a few quiet deeper ones, and let the clutter of your mind fall away — i.e. sweep the current stuff of life off the floor of your consciousness so you can settle into their movie.
  3. Be Curious About the Story. You went to a movie because you are interested in the story, so be interested in their story. Invite them to open up. If you suspect someone wants to talk about something but isn’t comfortable initiating the conversation, try asking a simple questions like, “You seem upset. What’s up?” “You seem distracted?” “Anything you want to talk about?” As they speak try to imagine where it might be headed or what other deeper layers are under the surface that you might help dislodge.
  4. Pay Attention to Their Face. As much as 70 percent of our communication is nonverbal so pay attention not only to what is said but to what is not said, just like in a movie. Pay close attention to the other person’s tone of voice, their eyes, and body language. Look at Henry Fonda’s face in the above picture from Once Upon aTime in the West. Tension? Anger? Fear? All of the above?
  5. Match Their Energy. If we are immersed in a movie, our emotions match those of the characters. You can do this intentionally with people. If the other person is happy or excited, then smile, laugh, and share in the thrill. If they are discouraged or sad, then be respectful and speak in a softer, more compassionate manner. In the beginning this will seem artificial, but before long it becomes genuine as you get out of your SELF.
  6. Share Your Popcorn. While watching movies we are often moved and we make comments in our heads like “oh my God”, or “no way”, or “seriously?”. Offering these small verbal treats does two things: 1) it let’s them know that you are mentally engaged in their story and 2) it helps you to fill your commercial mental breaks and therefore helps to prevent mind wandering, keeping you engaged. In addition, make the effort to micro-validate their feelings by saying things like “I’d feel that way too” or “that must have been irritating” to help the other person feel that their feelings are ok to have, which they are. Micro validating lets them know that you are listening, withholding judgment, and seeing things from their perspective. IMPORTANT sidebar: staying outside of SELF means suspending, to the best of our ability, all judgment, or at a minimum not reacting to our judgements, what Ray Dalio calls Radical Open Mindedness. When internal judgments or reactions arise within us, when thoughts such as “I can’t believe you said that” or “you were a jerk to say that to him” come up and threaten to derail your active listening vibe, just remember the following— YOU DON’T HAVE TO AGREE WITH THEM, YOU ONLY HAVE TO EMPATHIZE WITH THEIR EXPERIENCE OF THE SITUATION. In other words, just being one struggling human being with another struggling human being. Once they trust that you care and are not judging them, the opportunity may arise for gentle and compassionate, yet radical, candor about the details.
  7. Critique The Movie After It Is Done. Once you have watched the whole movie, then, and only then, do you get to offer your opinion. Never, ever, offer advice or feedback during the process of active listening. Not yet. None of these — “at least . . . ”, “you should have. . . ”, or “that’s not true” comments, yet. That’s for later, after they feel they have been heard and understood, after they feel that you really get them, when they are now primed to receive advice or feedback.
  1. Turn Off Your Cellphone
  2. Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy
  3. Be Curious About the Story
  4. Pay Attention to Their Face
  5. Match Their Energy
  6. Share Your Popcorn
  7. Critique The Movie After It Is Done

Juvenile delinquent, high school dropout, Thoracic Surgeon. Visit me at www.michaelmaddaus.com

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