Talking & Listening: The Decline of Healthy Communication

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say”.

-Bryant H. McGill

Advances in technology by way of instant messaging and social media mean that we are communicating more, and with a greater number of people then perhaps ever before. With the swipe of a finger, we can see and hear what someone in another country is getting up to at any given time, and share our thoughts about everything from what we had for lunch to our political views and opinions. But as our ability and willingness to share information about ourselves with others seems to be growing, our ability to listen to others is in steady decline. If this trend continues, we will no doubt see a rise in unhealthy relationships of all kinds, and even larger rifts in society than the ones we are experiencing now.

Excessive Talking

When I was younger, I had a friend who I’ll call Ryan. I liked Ryan a lot, he was kind, funny and incredibly sweet. I’m pretty sure he still is a lovely person because that seemed to be a genuine part of his character, but I can’t say for sure because I haven’t spoken to him for over ten years. I basically ghosted him before ‘ghosting’ became part of the popular lexicon.

As lovely as he was, the one thing I eventually came to detest about him was the fact that he talked too much. I don’t just mean he was a bit chatty – I actually like chatty people – I mean he talked incessantly to the point where not only was he not listening, but he wasn’t even engaging in conversation – he was literally talking at me, and this would last for hours.

I don’t have the words to fully articulate how awful this was. It felt like an attack. I was stuck on the phone from anywhere between two to three hours unable to even end the call because there was never a natural pause, he would just talk, and talk, and talk. After realising that my presence clearly wasn’t necessary during his diatribes, I would put him on speaker phone and continue with the things I needed to do. For example, I’d leave the phone in whatever room I was in then go and make myself a drink, sometimes go to the bathroom or scroll through Facebook, sometimes even engaging in conversations with people on the App. I remember that I ordered a pair of shoes online once. Of course, Ryan had no idea. He never noticed that I had said nothing for at least forty-minutes. He was too engrossed in what he had to say.

After a while I just stopped answering the phone when I saw that it was him calling. I wouldn’t do the same thing today. As a more mature person I would explain to him (if given the opportunity!) that I find his incessant talking not only annoying but rude and selfish. I would explain that a conversation involves 2 or more people and that if he isn’t going to acknowledge, let alone take an interest, in the person he has chosen to contact then why make contact at all? I would also explain that for me, an introvert, his behaviour was incredibly distressing because he talked so much that I sometimes found it smothering and on one occasion – the last time I ever answered the phone to him – I was actually on the brink of tears because it genuinely felt like I was being tortured.

But I wasn’t as mature back then. I was pissed off, so I ghosted him.

Ryan wasn’t the only person I have encountered who talks too much but he was by far the worst. Although I couldn’t stay in contact with him for the sake of my own mental well-being at least his inability to shut the fuck up wasn’t dangerous.

Reckless Talk

There are some people who are so self-absorbed and oblivious to the people and world around them that they are actually dangerous. These people usually talk incessantly, insert themselves into situations and relationships that don’t concern them and will adopt whatever personality they think will curry good favour in any given situation. These people have very low self-esteem and place their value solely on what others think of them. Their almost obsessive need to be liked by everyone means that they will say (and sometimes do) whatever it takes to be included; to seem interesting or to guarantee their place in whatever group of people they’re trying to impress. None of this really concerns you unless you have ever told these people anything in confidence.

Make no mistake, these troubled souls will share things you have told them in confidence with others to increase their social currency.

Aside from the obvious, there are a few problems with this. Firstly, the ability to be able to keep things private, whether you have been asked to do so or not, is a sign of maturity. It’s why children and teenagers fall out over such things; they’re still navigating their social relationships and their place in them. It’s hoped that as adults we understand that while being liked and having a good and varied circle of friends is important, none of that matters if you have a reputation for excessive gossiping and breaking confidences. Secondly, these people can make you feel uncomfortable. It’s not fun when you can’t speak freely around your so-called friend without fear of what you say being taken out of context, remixed, then passed on to someone else creating problems between you and them. Thirdly, and perhaps most disturbingly is the lack of awareness of what they have done and why it’s wrong.

Mid-conversation with someone who I considered a good and trusted friend, said ‘friend’ revealed, in passing without any hint of recognition, remorse or shame that they had repeated a conversation we had a while back to ‘Kelly’, a person we had in common. In the initial conversation I had expressed my feelings about another person, we’ll call them ‘Person X’, and my ‘friend’ took it upon themselves to repeat what I had said about Person X to ‘Kelly’. I think my ‘friend’ felt justified in doing this because Person X and Kelly had fallen out, but nevertheless, it was a shitty thing for my ‘friend’ to do. Equally shitty was the fact that my ‘friend’s’ mouth is clearly so used to moving without the engagement of their brain that they hadn’t even realised that: a. They had just told me what they had done and b; that it was a terrible thing to do. To say I was taken aback is an understatement. In fact, I was so shocked that I couldn’t speak for a moment while I processed what I’d just heard. Of course, said ‘friend’ didn’t notice as they continued mindlessly yapping on about something or the other. 

Everything in life is a lesson and I learned a very important lesson on that day. 

Listen up!

‘Ryan’ and ‘friend’ are extreme examples of people who talk and never listen, but people do this every day – albeit to a lesser extent. Think about all the people you communicate with. How many of them really listen to you? Do they know what’s important to you and do they take the time to ask you about it? Are they genuinely interested in your thoughts and opinions? Do they ask how you are then actually listen to your reply? 

And do you do the same for them?

A relative passed away recently and during her service, everyone mentioned the same thing about her. She was very generous and if you told her in passing that you liked something she would always make sure that when she saw you, she’d have that thing for you.  It’s not the receiving of the thing that’s important here, it’s the fact that she cared enough to listen to what was important to others.

Listening is caring.

The Age of Narcissism

Over the last decade – maybe even longer – we’ve become a society who loves to speak but are incapable of listening. We want to communicate, to be heard and to be congratulated or sympathised with as appropriate. We want to post pictures of ourselves and have everyone tell us how beautiful we are, but we don’t want to listen to how horribly people who aren’t considered conventionally attractive are treated in society. 

We want to parade our relationships, regardless of how dysfunctional they might be, and have everyone tell us that we’re ‘Relationship Goals’, but we don’t want to listen to and acknowledge the millions of children who are born into dysfunctional environments at the whim of selfish and emotionally immature parents. 

We want to talk endlessly about our rights and our oppressions but will simultaneously oppress, gaslight and ignore everyone else’s rights if they don’t fit our rhetoric. 

And here’s the kicker; when those of us who are tired of being talked at and never really listened to keep quiet because under such conditions speaking is superfluous, people will ask ‘what’s wrong’? ‘Are you okay’? ‘You’re so quiet’.

The fear people have about silence and solitude is alarming. An increasing number of people fear being alone with their own thoughts which explains the poor listening skills. If you’re not talking, a thought might creep in, so the best way to avoid that is to never stop talking. Or watching TV. Or scrolling. In fact, just don’t engage in anything that will give your mind a moments peace! This process of ‘thought-blocking’ has become so prevalent that people who don’t feel the need to always fill the silence, or to speak when there is no reason to, or who are simply quiet because they’re listening, are regarded with suspicion and concern.

And that’s where we are right now. A world where everyone is talking but no-one is listening, except for the few who have chosen to stay quiet and are considered ‘weird’, ‘shy’ or ‘disturbed’ as a result.

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