Why I Worry About Being a Good Listener

Am I complicit in silencing my own voice?

Posted Jun 15, 2016

Bart Everson/Flickr
Source: Bart Everson/Flickr

Sometimes I worry that I'm boring.

I see people chattering on their telephones and wonder how they have so much to say.

I hang with friends and listen to long stories about this, that, and the other thing, but when I try to tell a story myself, it’s brief, to the point, and lacking in colorful detail. Sometimes, silence follows my last words, as if my listeners are waiting for the rest of the story.

That seems odd for a writer—but I fuss and labor over the written word. I am not not a raconteur, not a facile storyteller. And I am less interested in the external trappings of a story than the internal meanings and messages—often the shades of meaning I am not likely to share in casual conversation: how things make me feel, what I think others might feel, why I think people might do the things they do.

I am interested in my own internal landscape but don’t like appearing self-absorbed and so tend to mostly keep that to myself. I’m unlikely to muscle into conversations in order to express…much of anything, really. Perhaps that’s why people don’t ask me many questions, or initiate conversation about what’s going on with me. Often they forget things I've told them--things that are important to me. I try not to make a big deal of stuff I tell people, or assume what I have to say is important for them to hear. And I’m not quick on the draw in conversation, so even if I do have a thought to contribute, it often occurs to me after the discussion has moved on. I will sometimes say, "Going back to what you said earlier..."—but not always. 

And so I do a lot of listening, and talking about what interests other people. Even when people do ask questions, they might not be the ones I want to answer, not the topics I want to talk about. I rarely have control of conversations. I’m interrupted a lot. (Not unusual for women, actually.)

I’ve written on this subject in the past—how introverts are sitting ducks for chatterboxes and how we have to learn to shut down our listening skills when they are taken advantage of.

But the flip side of this is that maybe we (and by “we,” I mean “I”) must learn to speak up when we feel overlooked or have something to say. Can we learn to embrace extroverts’ sense of entitlement to be listened to? Perhaps we have to be less sensitive to what other people need from us and more assertive about what we need from other people—aside from quiet and solitude, which is what we mostly talk about in this “introvert-positive” movement.

Yes, as introverts we do need space and solitude. But as human beings, we also need connection. To feel like we matter. To be heard. And in a noisy world, our little murmured disclosures can get lost, leaving us feeling neglected, unimportant, irrelevant.

Sometimes, as a good listener, I feel like a receptacle for other people’s problems and mishigos. I wonder if an ability to listen is all I bring to the table. And then I wonder what I get out of these relationships, aside from entertainment. And what it says about me that I’ve had so many such relationships over the course of my life.

And I worry about being boring. Perhaps I say little because I have little to say. And yet my mind is perpetually busy, so I know there's something happening in there.

I don’t and won’t blame this on other people’s insensitivity. My philosophy of life is that we are all thrashing around, doing the best we can. The people who talk over and through me do so not with malevolence, but for their own deeply human reasons. We are all flawed, we are all needy, we simply manifest these things differently.

I can’t change other people, I can only consider my role in these imbalanced conversations. Because I’ve also noticed that when someone seems genuinely interested in me, I am struck dumb. I fumble and stutter. I don’t know what to do with the attention, so I punt it back to them. I am complicit in my own sense of not being heard. 

I have no particular insights or solutions for this problem—I’ve only just started thinking about it. But for once, I thought I’d toss a half-baked thought out there and see what happens. Start a conversation.

Tell me what you think. I’ll listen.

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