An often familiar situation I find myself in while conversing with people is when you share pieces of traumatic pasts or not-so-good childhood experiences that have influenced your various thought processes, very few of them often understand the spectrum of the individual’s behaviour or where they are coming from with regards to a particular opinion or a fear they might have. I wouldn’t term this as lack of empathy but rather the absence of a difficult childhood or being naturally accustomed to be looked upon by your fellow mates or perpetually having experienced the state of authority wherein it becomes difficult to be a good listener and empathise with another person.
An instance from a conversation, I had with someone a long time ago, that went southwards, was when I was elaborating some unfortunate circumstances from my school days centred around bullying – a group of girls beating me blue and black in my school bus, pushing me out from a running bus, cornering me into giving up my lunch box, certain acts of what can only be termed as viciousness, like pouring hot water over my head – the person immediately responded by brushing aside these activities terming it as a part of ‘growing up’. Indeed, I am quite thankful for all my collective experiences from school days and thereafter, but that doesn’t mean one simply outgrows the trauma that their eight or nine year old self had gone through at one point of time. The beginning few years of a child’s social life, where he/she interacts with fellow mates of their own age, literally shapes up majority of what the child perceives his self-worth to be, in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Born a south Indian and a Tamilian, my colour was often a matter of discussion amongst my street playmates. I had ‘friends’ who’d refuse to hold my hand while forming a play circle for the fear of ‘turning brown’. With all due modesty, I was better than most people in most games, and yet would always be the last to be picked up by any side. Numerous such interactions and experiences made me believe that I was in many ways, inferior to this lot that were my ‘friends’.
While in adulthood, I can claim to have recognised my value and worth, rediscovered what I actually am – for the good or bad, and have managed to close most doors of the past, even until a few years ago, helplessness completely dominated my personality resulting in viewing myself as a perpetual victim in any situation. But for all the negative side of this experience., I also found an amazing support system in the form of my mother and some beautiful friends that stood by me no matter what. When I had my school bag flung outside a moving bus, a friend stood up to those bullies with the scene almost leading to a fight. They were too many of them to argue with, but nevertheless my friend was ready to take up on them all by herself. My mother for her part worked her way in and out of my mind, trying to figure all the mis-aligned circuit wires while helping me rebuild my self-esteem and helping me detach from negativity in various ways.
Positive interactions of these kind helped me realise that the bad things happening to me were not in my control and certainly not something that I deserved owing to my less-assertive nature. I spent most of my teen years right through early adulthood, dismissing the pain of my experiences as something that happened to everybody and was just another part of ‘growing up’. And that was because I was told time and again that my negative experiences did not matter in the scheme of larger things. I would probably agree with a more refined statement wherein one says the pain and experience matters but one needs to always get past that to live your life to the fullest. And also where traumatic experiences are not dis-credited with having anything to do with your present psychology. No matter how much ever one grows, one always carries the baggage of the past with them. While sensitive adults are mature enough to not focus all their energy on their past pain, many fall into the trap of becoming obsessed with ways of never having to live through that pain again. Although a deeper insight on this issue might need altogether a separate column where I could try and find arguments to justify both sides of this story.
While I digressed a bit from the initial aim of this write-up, the more I think of all the zillion conversations I’ve had in a personal capacity with people, the more I feel that most people I’ve met tend to make conversations all about themselves. Bad listening skills coupled with wanting to probably show someone the extent of your success in the face of whatever adversities one may have faced, leads to declined sensitivity to another person’s perspective. Withholding judgment and possibly reflecting on where other person’s coming from, respecting their background and the numerous ways they may have overcome challenges in their life, being secure of one’s own achievements and experiences are some possible high level traits I feel one requires to have a sane conversation with another person about their life and circumstances. One is not expected to imbibe these traits over night. But as a creature of evolution one needs to make a start somewhere. You can begin practicing empathetic listening by indulging in personal conversations with known people, like your own parents or spouse. More often than not parents don’t talk about all their struggles – be it financial, emotional, inter personal or otherwise to their children. Even today when I speak to my mother or father, I get to know hidden facts from their past that helps me justify their present personality, their present thought process which consequently also helps me understand why they react the way they do to certain situations.
If one multiplies poor listening skills with the number of one’s friends or colleagues or people of importance in one’s life, I believe it adds up to a staggering cost to one’s inter and intra personal relationships. Growing up, I found it immensely difficult to express what I was feeling about a particular situation. Sadness, anger, happiness, anxiety – no matter the emotion, I’d crawl into my shell and consequently become a puzzle for my parents to figure out. It took years of patient training on their part and constant learning from my behaviour, to help me identify and react to situations more openly. This was not some outwardly training process for which activities, rules or guidelines were designed. It happened as and when we were faced with different situations. In the backend, they slowly figured out the workings of my brain. This was done in a way that also helped me realise my own reactions and made me a more empathetic listener. I could automatically figure out what people were feeling, observing their body language, their pattern of speech, their eye movements, etc. Over the years, I learnt to let go of my personal agenda while speaking and listening to people from various walks of life, focusing entirely on the unspoken message behind their words.
Next time, when you have a friend who talks to you about family problems, or relationship with his/her partner, or career stress or someone who is simply in an emotionally vulnerable position, do not take your toolkit out to start fixing their problems. Do not start throwing a bunch of practical-sounding solutions, without cushioning with comforting words. Do not hijack the conversation citing similar experiences you may have faced. If a person feels comfortable enough to open up to you about personal issues, respect that and be the passively absorbent and an actively supporting party. Not everything needs to be about you. You are also not required to be the all-knowing person with solutions to your friend’s many problems. You need only be confident of who you are, where you come from and be a person of thorough integrity. Practice good listening, it is the single most underrated skills amongst the majority of the population today. One that is not stressed enough to be improved on, in B-schools and corporate places. But also the one skill that can single-handedly propel you from being a boss to a born leader, one who learns and grows from what they hear. When one gives up the thought that they have control, they can better adapt, anticipate, sense the environment and respond.
Summarising my two cents,
To survive and even thrive in a changing world, nature offers another great lesson: the survivors are those who at the least adapt to change, or even better learn to benefit from change and grow intellectually and personally. That means careful listening and constant learning.‘Anonymous’