Active, engaged listening requires holding space for a person to feel seen and understood. How we talk, when we talk, and what we talk about is the other side of the communication coin, and it is just as important as listening.
The Short Talker
I’ve been struggling with being seen and heard for years. Energetically, it’s exhausting. One time in the middle of a hissy fit, I told a co-worker I was seriously thinking about taking a vow of silence since no one was listening to me anyway. That may be because I am a Short Talker.
This speaking style is like newspaper headlines and breaking news banners on television. Short Talkers throw out words as bait to see if there is interest in what we have to say. If there is, we proceed. If not, we stop. We are horrified at the thought of boring people or holding communication hostages.
I’m an introverted Short Talker, sometimes a No Talker, but never a Close Talker. (You know, those people who get up in your face…) However, I am attracted to extroverts because they are Long Talkers. They tend to take up all the air in the room. There is no need for me to think or respond. And yes, I do understand that this sets me up to not be heard. It’s complicated. I have issues.
On the flip side, am I a good listener? Many people have told me I am. Maybe that’s because I’m an introvert. Unless I am asked a specific question and the person seems really interested, I tend to conserve my conversational energy and remain silent. That silence is often mistaken for listening. Sometimes I am listening, but at other times I’m not.
The Deep Talker
My active listening gene turns on when someone talks about subjects I’m interested in. I love talking about pop culture, humor, politics, food, health and wellness, adventure travel, world mysteries, historical and cultural oddities, and the big questions: What is reality? Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? And what happens when we die?
Deep Talkers are as rare as a $2 bill. Those who share my interests are my conversational soul mates. I enjoy, appreciate and think of them fondly long after our conversation is over, even if we have differing opinions.
My least favorite topics are what I call the K4P list—the unabridged activities of other people’s Kids, Pets, Plants, Partners and Problems. Even so, it is important to listen to others talk about the things that interest them. I am trying to be a more empathetic listener. It’s not easy or comfortable, but I’m working on it.
Regarding other people’s problems, there is a caveat. I am happy to provide a listening ear for someone to talk or vent about a difficult situation.
However, after three times listening to the same problem from the same person, my energy lags, my attention span shortens, and my listening gene shuts off. This is especially true if the situation is unchanged and no attempts have been made to understand it, make progress toward a resolution, or accept that it is what it is. At that point, I am drowning in the drama and my silence is not active listening. I’d love to think of myself as being compassionate 24/7, 365 days a year, but I’m not. “And that’s the truth.”
If I had to give a name to my listening style in these situations, I’d call myself a Surfer. I catch the top waves of the topic and ride it, tuning out the details, or troughs, if they drag on for longer than I can hang on. When that happens, I retreat into resentful, silent observation. It’s an energy riptide that drags me down.
Ironically, I may be behaving in the same way as those I find myself judging. That means it’s time to check myself, so I am. My goal is to balance my energy in conversational exchanges while holding compassionate space to listen actively to others.
If this sounds familiar to you, try pre-planning solutions for a variety of communication scenarios you know you will face. Here are a few to consider.
1. Problem: Being interrupted
“Houston, we have a problem.” Being interrupted and asked a question for clarification or more information is okay. But when you’re constantly interrupted and the conversation is pulled away before you’ve finished a thought, it can be irritating and frustrating. Serial interrupters suffer from a condition I call “Talkus Interruptus.” Sometimes, they are aware of it, and sometimes not.
I have a friend who suffers from chronic Talkus Interruptus. One day, she admitted to a group of us at lunch that she was guilty of it and had traced it back to her childhood when interrupting was the only way she got to be heard in her family. Hearing that, I was less irritated by her interruptions because I understood the “why.” However, there are others who don’t seem to have a clue how often they interrupt. Here is one way to handle that situation without sinking into silent resentment.
Solution: Pre-plan a few stories.
Recently, in anticipation of having dinner with friends, I wanted to tell a funny story about a recent viral trend called the “one chip challenge” in which participants eat a chip flavored with ghost pepper, the hottest pepper known to humankind. Then they post descriptions of their pain online. I rehearsed the story in my mind several times before dinner knowing I would be interrupted. Sure enough, one member of our group had heard about the challenge and interrupted me several times to tell it her way. This time, I was ready. I ignored the interruptions and continued telling the story my way until she realized what she was doing and apologized.
2. Problem: Hostage situations
“Danger, Will Robinson!” This is being caught and held in someone’s energy net with a story that morphs from a Facebook post to a novel in just a few minutes. Until recently, I handled these situations by nodding or offering a half-hearted “Really?” “Oh my goodness,” or “I can understand that” when they stopped to take a breath. My body lets me know I’m in a hostage situation by creating muscle spasms in my lower back. My mind follows up with feelings of being stuck, blocked and trapped.
After reflecting on the problem, I developed a list of Talker Type situations that needed solutions.
Long Talkers. When they start in, you can almost see them opening detailed files in their minds as they meticulously recount the contents of one and then proceed directly to the next. They have files on everything from their latest trip to what’s going on with their relatives, kids, pets, work, hobbies and, of course, their health. They are what is known in Seinfeld-talk as the “unshushables.”
Side Trail Talkers. They take the longest route to the point they are making. They spin stories that are ultimately related to their main point, but by the time they get to it, everyone listening is exhausted. Well, maybe not everyone. But I am. It’s hard to stay present in a situation like this. I wish they’d get to the point and “yada, yada, yada” past the side trails. Yes, I lack patience, and I am aware of it.
Tornado Talkers. They have only one topic: complaints. They are the doom-and-gloomers. Their dark clouds blot out the sun of your good mood. Like a tornado, they start with moving gusts of air, which develops into an intense whirlwind that sucks you in and carries you along until it fizzles out or you find a way to escape. Tornado Talkers make me want to scream, “Serenity, now!”
Solution: Realize you may have to interrupt to save your sanity
Go ahead and interrupt, but do it compassionately with full self-awareness.
The technique? Say with a smile, “I’m sorry to interrupt you.” Then follow that line with a specific reason. You’re late for a meeting, you have to meet a friend, or you have to “pay your water bill” before your bladder bursts. Never, ever say, “I don’t mean to interrupt you,” because you do.
That’s how you disengage on your terms, without being rude, and it works 90 percent of the time.
3. Problem. The small talk scenario
Another energy-draining problem many introverts face is social gatherings.
It can be especially hard to be heard or to listen to others at events, like receptions, cocktail parties, fundraisers or dinner dances. These situations can be excruciatingly painful for introverts. Energetically, they last for years, instead of hours. The crowds, the noise, the effort to make small talk with friends, strangers or people you barely know can feel like torture. I don’t feel seen or heard. And I know I’m not truly seeing or listening to others.
Solution: If you face this issue, try a small talk management list
Limit your exposure and attend only those events that are necessary. Pre-select a few small talk topics, like work, hobbies, weather and popular culture. Make eye contact and hold space for the situation, even when it’s uncomfortable. As soon as you’ve small-talked with anyone on your friend or networking to-do list, employ the Irish goodbye and leave quickly and quietly.
To manage both sides of the communication coin, take time to reflect long and deep on how you talk and how well you listen. It’s easy to judge someone else’s style, but it might actually be a reflection of your own.
Practices to Help You Show Up and Be Heard
Here’s a poem I wrote to remind us how to show up and be heard and to see and hear others:
Show Up and Be Heard
To be seen and heard is both a tango and a duet.
To be successful, we must give as good as we get.
Shift happens when we witness what we think and what we do.
Only then can we know what adjustments may be due.
How we listen and how we talk requires holding space.
We know we need to practice. We also need some grace!
Practice: Still Waters Run Deep
Quality to Embody: Reflection
As you become aware of the communication situations that trigger you and leave you feeling stuck, tense, confused or drained, you will need techniques that can help bring your energy into balance. Here are three. They can be done anytime, anywhere.
A. Turtle in the Shell
This is an energy technique for feeling calm. Turtle in the Shell is called “Adhi mudra” in the yoga tradition. This hand gesture deepens a sense of grounding, moves energy out of the head, and promotes a feeling of safety and security. Instructions
• Stand or sit with your spine comfortably straight.
• Place your thumbs (the turtle’s head and neck) across your palms of your hands.
• Make soft fists by folding your fingers (the turtle’s shell) over your thumbs.
• Rest your hands by the sides of your body if you are standing. If you are seated, place your hands on your knees or thighs. Be sure the back of your hands are facing up.
• Hold for two to three minutes, or longer if you are comfortable.
B. Focused Breathing
This can be done whenever you need calming and cooling to reduce inner tension. Instructions:
• Stand or sit.
• Allow your spine to be comfortably aligned.
• Inhale normally.
• Hold your breath and silently count to three.
• Exhale normally.
• Pause for a silent count to three.
• Repeat for two to three minutes, or longer if you are comfortable.
C. Stand Your Ground
A shortened version of the Roots Visualization practice can be done whenever you need grounding and support to reduce inner tension. Instructions:
• Turn your attention to the bottoms of your feet and feel your connection with the floor.
• Visualize roots growing from the bottoms of your feet, branching and spreading deep into the earth.
• Begin to draw in the grounding, stable, supportive energy of the earth.
• Sense this energy filling your body from your toes to the crown of your head.
• See and feel your entire body safe, stable and connected to the world as you stand your ground.
Excerpted by permission from “Enlighten Up!: Finding Clarity, Contentment and Resilience in a Complicated World,” by Elizabeth Gibbs (Emerald Lake Books, 2021).
About the Author:
Elizabeth Gibbs has more than 20 years’ experience teaching and mentoring hundreds of yoga students, teachers and yoga therapists from all over the world to implement the five-layer model of self-awareness in their professional work and personal practice. She is an experienced public speaker with several published articles on the benefits of yoga, as well as “Enlighten Up!: Finding Clarity, Contentment and Resilience in a Complicated World.” She has also published a children’s book, Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi.
 A slang phrase rumored to refer to a person ducking out of a party, social gathering or bad date without saying goodbye.