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Is Inner Noise Affecting Your Ability to Listen?

How to give each other the attention we crave, even in the pandemic.

Key points

  • Focused conversations help people make sense of their lives, but pandemic anxiety has interfered with people's ability to connect and listen.
  • Inner chatter and anxiety can make it hard to focus on what a person is saying, which can lead to a cycle of frustration and distraction.
  • Reminding oneself to simply listen to the other person in a social situation, rather than trying to quiet inner chatter, may help people focus.
@istock used by permission, urbazon
Listening to each other in the pandemic
Source: @istock used by permission, urbazon

Is it just me, or has the pandemic generated such a high baseline level of inner noise and anxious rumbling that it’s made it nearly impossible to focus on a conversation with another human being, even though that’s exactly what we are craving most right now—to escape that rumbly inner noise and alleviate the unsettling isolation it creates?

If there were ever a time when it would be helpful to listen to each other it is now. Right? Back in the faraway before, when even our hardships seemed in retrospect more manageable, listening to each other’s words was an essential part of how we made sense of our lives, made meaning of our existence, and got through our toughest times. Remember that? When we would listen and reflect each other’s words back or even just quietly witness them, those present and compassionate responses enabling us to co-create the narratives of our life?

Those stories we helped each other write made our lives more livable. They located us and said, “You are here” when we were feeling totally lost. You might not remember this experience because it happened sort of naturally and, dare I say, effortlessly in the way back when. We were mirrors for each other—clear ones. I know I’m idealizing a little, but you know, not by too much.

So now—how do we mirror for each other when our own clarity is so fleeting? Our mirrors are kind of smudged up with the residue of our strained emotions and depleted resolve. We can’t tidy up our emotions as we go; we are too busy just trying to survive them and simply live.

Why Is It So Hard to Listen?

How can we make sense of our experiences now? How do we narrate this seemingly un-narratable time? And how do we connect and listen to each other when, with the ongoing strains and demands of the pandemic, we can’t get quiet enough to hear ourselves think?

I started to think about how hard it is to listen to each other after I took a walk with a friend I hadn’t seen for probably six months. It was one of those surreal reconnections with someone you know so well, where you feel like you’re walking out of or into a sci-fi movie and the whole quality of your connection—that was previously so nuanced—feels abruptly truncated and blunted. Later that day, as I recalled our conversation and tried to reconstruct the gist of what she’d said, I found myself frustratingly facing a blank page. I wanted to savor that connection, luxuriate in that conversation. I know she told me something very personal and important and—oh my gosh—I could not think of what it was. I tried so hard, shaking out my mind to try to find details—but my memory said, “nope.”

What got in the way of me hearing my friend? Chatter. Pandemic chatter. Life chatter. All coming from inside my head. The clattering and clamor of all things, none of which were necessary at that moment. The thought of how strange and uncomfortable I felt in the duality of the familiar/unfamiliar of social contact now. My nervous system playing dueling banjoes: Keep Distance! Connect! Keep Distance! Connect! The eager bingo player in my mind, which, upon hearing anything I could relate to, wanted to burst forth with a match: “Hey, I know that experience!!” And last, but not least, the vexing looping cycle of my inability to focus, my awareness of my inability to focus, my frustration about my inability to focus, the net result of which—of course—hindered my ability to focus even more.

Eventually that night, my friend’s story returned to me: She was talking about how she could no longer participate in her cherished yoga classes since her cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery, and how much she missed having that community in her life. Eureka, I’d found it! But, it was too late. I’m not sure how much support I was to her in that moment when too much was going on in my own mind. I think we both would have really loved it if I had been paying better attention. And I am a professional listener.

A Simple One-Word Instruction

Since then, I ardently decided to start working on listening better in my relationships. I started to scribble down ideas for how to improve. True to my self-help mission, I had five strategies, then I had 10. Somewhere after I had filled up a couple of pages with ideas, it occurred to me: “This is so wrong.” Trying to remember the surplus of the ideas themselves was clearly going to create more distraction, not less.

While pondering all of this and how to fix it, ironically, I am sure I missed many more important conversations. It was only weeks later during an online group music lesson that I was participating in for the first time that—Eureka!—I found it again.

Here we were a group of 100 eager students on Zoom on a Monday night, learning to play a song on our instruments. In teaching us the new song, the teacher with his kind face and hint of a Southern accent simply said, “I’m going to play a line, and you listen. Then, you play it back.” “Listening!” he directed us, and we did. “Good, y’all,” he responded. “Now: Playing,” he directed when it was our turn to play. So simple. Back and forth he instructed us as to what mode we should engage: “Listening.” “Playing.” “Listening.” “Playing.” No ambiguity. We had one job at a time and one job only. I found myself only listening (well, yes, I was also thinking how helpful this was to my problem here). His welcomed, one-word instruction told my nervous system exactly what to do. The psychic space of my chatter instantly cleared.

Getting Into "Listening" Mode

During the next few visits with friends, I tried to apply this idea of “only listening” and found that not only did this instruction deepen my connection with the other person and leave me feeling “full” from really hearing my friends, but it also seemed to slow everything down in a good way. The project of our “co-listening” advanced significantly. I listened and they listened to me too. The noisiness of my own opinions, my own problems, that pandemic rumbling, the felt urgencies to catch people up on my life weren’t so urgent anymore.

It’s clear that our nervous systems have been in protracted alarm mode since March 2020 and we’ve lost closeness with each other as a result. It’s not our fault, it’s our wiring. We have to work with it. Quieting the mind, saying "no" to all the noisiness—each of the open tabs of things we’re trying to process—is going to feel too hard sometimes. Hey, it wasn’t so easy before March 2020. Instead, let the tabs be open, let the thoughts rumble without your attention to them, and, if you’re willing, see what happens when you ask yourself to be in “listening” mode—with your children, your friends, your partner, the person at the checkout line. The neurological parsimony will hopefully be a welcome refuge. Watch a system override happen and those other demands instantly drop. You can pick them up later, they’ll be there for sure… Or if not, all the better.

One practical note, if in the midst of a conversation, you do find yourself lost in the noisiness of your own mind, rather than going down the rabbit hole of that frustration, try saying this: “Wait, I’m so sorry—my mind is so noisy. I feel like I’ve not had a real conversation since 2019—I forget how.” Likely, you will hear in response: “That’s exactly how I feel.” Your desire to connect deeply will encourage the other person’s connection and you will find each other in the intersection of those intentions. So much of our coming out of the pandemic safe and strong counts on our collaborative efforts—to mask, to vaccinate, and importantly, to patiently remind each other how to show we matter. Let’s be patient with ourselves and honest about how hard it is to “human” right now. Have thoughts? I’m listening, promise.

©2021 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

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