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.

Day in and day out we are all panning for that gold, wanting to be heard and understood by others and those we care most about, yet day after day we usually come up with a pile of interactions that, at best, have only small flecks of gold — that sense of real connection with another human being — scattered here and there. Worse yet, on many days, we find no gold at all. And more and more we are going down a trail where someone else — like facebook, snapchat, instagram — says we can easily find gold, and we still come up empty handed. Yet, despite not finding gold, we persist, scratching at the itch to be connected. And where does just dealing with the symptom lead? To the mental poorhouse, a slum filled with loneliness, anxiety, and depression, as so well documented in JoHann Hari’s book Lost Connections.

How come we so rarely find the gold we are looking for in a conversation? The kind of conversation where you felt you could breathe freely for a while, the kind that makes the rest of your day so nice. There are three reasons:

  1. . Why? Because it feels good. Why does it feel good? Because talking about ourselves activates the part of the brain associated with dopamine, the same part of the brain that makes sex, cocaine, and good food so good. This is true even if we just talk out loud about ourselves when no one is around. But if someone is there, listening, really listening, the amount of activation is increased even more. The problem is that really listening (commonly called active listening) is anything but easy. Unlike talking about ourselves, it is not naturally rewarding, because it requires us to go to the cognitive gym and lift the weights of attention and focus, so it can feel like a drag.
  2. . 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.
  3. . 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.

The trigger for me to write this article got pulled when I was listening to a lesson on Sam Harris’s meditation app Waking Up entitled Self and Other. Now, to fully understand what Harris is talking about, we have to first understand that the concept of “SELF” is an illusion. It is an illusion because there is NO SELF inside the head doing all the thinking and directing. There is no ME in there behind my forehead, in my skull, behind the wheel of my car, even though it absolutely feels as if there is. As I wrote in my post on Free Will, “Thoughts in our brains arise based on prior conditions and/or randomness. We have no control over what shows up in our heads (if I could type out the manuscript of all my “thinking” from just one hour I could absolutely prove this to be true). But because we THINK we are THINKING UP THOSE THOUGHTS, because we THINK THERE IS A THINKER, WE THINK we are in control and that we have Free Will.

So the sense of SELF is an appearance in consciousness, just like everything else we experience, sound, smell, taste, sight, etc. It is a construct within consciousness. It is not real in the sense that my skin and bones are real.

Ok, Harris then goes on to discuss Theory of Mind, in which we are able to form a Theory about what is going on in someone else's mind — what their beliefs, goals, and intentions are. This ability to recognize and interpret the mental activity of other people is the basis of empathy and is a foundational component of social functioning. Harris notes that discussions of TOM in the realms of psychology and neuroscience often suggest that the ability to know what is going on in someone else's mind depends the ability to reflect on one’s own inner states, i.e. the SELF. Not true, Harris asserts.

Going to a movie, a really good movie that you are engrossed in, demonstrates this possibility quite convincingly. When you are fully absorbed in a good movie or TV show, you are unaware of yourSELF. You are unaware of the room, the light on the wall, the person next to you (unless they start slurping from their five gallon coca-cola). It is like a spell. And the spell gets even more interesting. In the spell of a movie you become completely immersed in the mental and emotional lives of the people you see on screen. You can stare into the person’s eyes, listen to them speak, watch them react, all with absolutely no possibility of being seen yourSELF. You are not implicated, in any way, shape, or form.

So here is the idea: if you want to be a really good listener, if you want people to feel heard and valued by you, pretend that you are in their movie, and that it is a good one.

Now, admittedly, for the cognitive load reasons I outlined above, this is not easy, but like all things worthwhile, the effort is well worth it. To pretend that you are watching a movie when you are talking to someone may seem contrived and fake at first, since it may feel unnatural, but as Amy Cuddy says, fake it till you become it (in this case a great listener).

Here are the specific steps to give yourSELF the best chance of enjoying the movie:

  1. Buy Your Ticket. Commit to doing your best to watch their movie before you see them. Prime your mental movie pump. Remember, whether you want to be there or not, you are there, for what ever reason, so you might as well give it your best effort to do your best.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Pay Attention to Their Face. As much as of our communication is nonverbal so pay attention not only to what is said but to what is , 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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 . 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.
  8. Critique The Movie 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.

Index Card Summary:

  1. Buy the Ticket
  2. Turn Off Your Cellphone
  3. Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy
  4. Be Curious About the Story
  5. Pay Attention to Their Face
  6. Match Their Energy
  7. Share Your Popcorn
  8. Critique The Movie It Is Done

So, if you care about how a conversation will go, or if you just want to be a more connected human being, drop yourSELF outside the theater of conversations and go in to see a good movie.

P.S. Sometimes the movie really does suck, and despite our best efforts to hang in there, it just ain’t worth it. And sometimes it is absolutely ok to walk out in the middle of it.


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

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