Yesterday I learned, somewhat to my surprise, that I have a deeply-ingrained bad habit of not listening. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s really a combination of arrogance, unwillingness to trust others, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and under-developed listening skills.
Our child needed one more thing to run tests on a science project. TL checked for it on Amazon and found it only sold in bulk and was unable to ship quickly. Yesterday, when out shopping, TL suggested we go to the office supply store on our way home. I told TL, “No, there is no office supply store in this town, we will have to order it from Amazon.” She disagreed, insisting that she knew there was a local store. Without even thinking much about it, I mindlessly repeated my opinion that there was no such store nearby. She disagreed again. We repeated the exchange, talking past each other a third time, and perhaps a fourth. Ultimately, she got angry and sad about my failure to believe that she knew what she was talking about, to listen. We drove to where she thought there was an office supply store, it turned out she was right, and I apologized for not listening.
I tried to deconstruct the event to figure out what I had done. I tried to empathize. I found an analogy. It reminded me of all the times I felt my parents don’t listen to me. I explain the same things to them again and again. Each time they act as if they had never heard it before. Just today I spoke with them on the phone. To my frustration, I heard, “We were surprised you’re moving in a few months.” I had told them many times over the course of the past two years when we would be moving. Then my father said, “so, you’re really retiring in a few years.” I had explained my career timing to them again and again over the past 17 years.
Today I realized that they hear these things each time, but they let them go in one ear and out the other. I ask them to do things, like remember that we are Jewish. They act as if I hadn’t said anything. I answer their questions. They ask the same questions next time we talk, as though we had never discussed it before. Perhaps they don’t believe what I say. Perhaps they don’t want to believe what I say.
In my parents’ case and in my case, there may be similar themes that compound these poor listening skills. I suspect arrogance has a role. When I am so very certain of my knowledge, I feel no need to listen to new information from any source. Of course, this is a terrible impediment to learning and growth. I have to remind myself, daily, of how much I don’t know. I also have to remind myself that it’s OK to not know everything. Just now, as I write this, I realize I may have a bit of fear with regard to admitting ignorance. I often use knowledge as a big ingredient in my self-esteem box. So, I feel a threat to my self-esteem when I have to admit ignorance. I need to regularly recall that the quest for knowledge is built on ignorance, not on omniscience.
There’s also perhaps an element of unwillingness to trust other people. I’m not sure where I got that tendency. I think I observed it in my mother. I think of her as being extremely untrusting. I think I became that way too.
Then there’s my obsessive-compulsive tendency, which B and others identified in me. When I start a course of action or plan or begin with a particular opinion about something, it is extremely difficult for my to change gears. I am inflexible. I know this about myself, and I have done a lot to become more flexible. I often remind myself that I do not have to do everything every day. It’s a struggle, but I do see progress. But, today, I realize the same inflexibility that makes it difficult for me to break routines also makes it difficult to listen to ideas that counter a thought I am already pursuing.
In sum, improving my listening skills takes continued practice. It also takes remembering that it’s OK to learn from others and remembering to be flexible. Seeing how it makes me feel when my parents fail to listen will hopefully help me remember to not inflict that treatment on TL or others myself.