Earl Nightingale briefly mentioned a mental attitude that he dubbed “emotional deafness”. The statement was made during a compilation talk I found on an old audio cassette that Jorge loaned me. The two-tape set was titled “Interpersonal Communication and Relationships”, it was sold sometime in the 1990s.
Like many of Nightingale’s audio essays, this one spurred me to investigate the matter more closely. First, I ran the phrase “emotional deafness” through a search and came up with a physiological/medical condition that is not related to what Nightingale referred to. Today’s post will not address this medical issue, because I do not have the expertise to give you an intelligent opinion about it. What the late Earl Nightingale called “emotional deafness” is certainly something else.
What the personal growth guru was talking about regards the common tendency of us to ignore things that we don’t want to hear. An extreme example is the harmful, childish bickering about national policy that takes place among members of Congress in Washington DC. Outsiders can readily understand that the quarreling parties simply ignore the arguments adamantly made by each other. Because this “hearing problem” affects the entire foreign and domestic policy of the United States, we have a huge and dangerous problem.
Certainly, hearing only what we want to hear is found on a personal level, too. This blanking out of another person’s communication causes major relationship issues within couples and families. Stereotypically, men are blamed for much of this disconnect. The female partner may ask her male partner how her clothing makes her look. He might appear to ignore her question. The moment she mentions football, he has a ready and immediate reply. Naturally, scenarios involving women’s communication disconnects can be cited, too.
It’s easy to see how this type of communication breakdown happens during decision-making discussions regarding domestic and military spending in the halls of Congress. Each party is “deaf” to the statements of the other. The resulting logjams and legislative battles cause great harm to those of us living outside the capitol. Similar implications arise about decision-making disconnects by couples and families.
There are people, like Earl Nightingale, who say that this “blockage” is a result of immaturity and self-centered egoism. Many of us have developed a high level of skill to selectively hear only what we want. It’s only human to want to hear only what we want to hear. We filter sounds and words through our filters of fear and desire. Sometimes we don’t even listen to the voices inside our heads.
I might walk down the street, hypnotized by my own thoughts and not even notice the songs of birds in the trees. Maybe I’m downtown and don’t even notice the sound of vehicles passing by on the street until a truck driver sounds his horn to warn me of his presence.
I might be with my lover and only hear sweet words about a future that I believe he and I share. He speaks on and on in a romantic vein while I become mesmerized by my own interpretations of what I hear. Then his talking stops with the inflection of a question. Whoops! I suddenly realize that I had not been really listening to him.
Listening is certainly an art. It has to be mindfully cultivated and practiced regularly to become habitual. To make it easier for me to grasp, I call it “careful hearing”. By changing the word “listening” to “careful hearing”, I am able to more closely understand the act of listening. We are daily concerned about achieving goals, getting results, convincing others of our opinions. We want to overcome opposition and conquer. In our efforts, we easily become self-centered. We fail to sympathize and empathize with other people. This is normal. It’s the default setting of our minds. It can also become our greatest failure. These days, we are told to put ourselves first and disregard people who disagree with us. This attitude may seem smart, but is this amount of self-interest really wise? When we fail to carefully hear others, we isolate ourselves ever more. We don’t hear the “songs” of life.
There is an elementary practice that can help us to carefully hear. Choose one sound to hear. Maybe you hear the compressor motor of your refrigerator, the tick of a quartz wall clock, or you may strike a brass bell or gong. Hear the sound and only the sound. Don’t label it. For the sake of this exercize, when you hear a bird song, don’t try to categorize it as the sound of a cardinal or a robin, just carefully hear it. Don’t judge the sound as pleasing or harsh. Only listen. This is a simple meditation that anybody can do.
In this state of mind, just carefully hear what your coworker or neighbor has to say. Don’t immediately think the words are agreeable or disagreeable. Next, mindfully and carefully hear what a politician has to say. Choose the most difficult politician you can think of, then carefully hear what she has to say. You don’t need to agree nor disagree, there is no need to fear being “converted” to her point of view. The point is to try to understand where she is coming from. In the process, you can understand where you have a communication blockage.
You can then practice careful hearing with people you agree with. You may discover ways to more deeply bond with them. You may also understand the questions that divide you. When you engage in careful hearing, the other people will eventually know and appreciate what you are doing. This practice will bring out a degree of empathy and make any discussion more “real”. Instead of winning some sort of victory, careful hearing will enable more harmony and mutual benefits.
With this exercise, we must be careful not to make harmony and mutual results the goal to achieve. We need to remember that we only desire to carefully hear. This is not about changing other people nor yourself. There is no result to be desired.
You don’t need to become somebody. The idea is not to capture some sort of experience. To carefully hear is simply to carefully understand. To carefully hear, is its own reward.