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No Sir, I Will NOT Have Your Baby

Updated: Aug 14, 2019

The topics in this article may be sensitive to some readers. I hope that this post will be read in the spirit with which it was written. No matter who we are or where we are, we can see ourselves in others if we dare to look. It's not always pretty, but it can change if we decide to change.

I am an active listener. I know this because I know the difference between my life before I was an active listener and my life after I became an active listener. Active listening is a skill that requires intention and practice. A person has to want to listen and then, listen.

These are my friend Torri's daughters. This picture says it better than I can.

Anyone who has spent time around children knows that humans are naturally selfish; much too selfish to truly listen to another human being without feeling that there’s something to be gained from it. In addition to being selfish, humans are also greedy. No matter how much we have, we tend to want more, even if those wants are accompanied by feelings of shame or guilt. When we take the time to become aware of our self-centeredness, we are able to pay more attention to those around us and create opportunities for others to win.

What is active listening? I define active listening as the ability to identify the motive behind a person’s communication. I contrast this with passive listening which I define as the ability to hear what someone is saying well enough to respond logically in the moment. For example, passive listening may occur when meeting someone for the first time, having a first date, or participating in an interview with a potential employee or employer. The general goal of passive listening is to see if you and the other person can connect on common ground which would increase your affinity towards them and theirs towards you. Still, this style of listening is fundamentally selfish. Favorable impressions are contingent upon the willingness or ability of the parties to appeal to each others’ self interests. It is not uncommon for a passive listener’s eyes to glaze over when they’re not being stimulated or when they perceive the conversation to be irrelevant.

Active listening is the stuff of which great comic improv is made. Like improv, it involves the following 4 basic tenets:

1. Say “yes.” No matter what your partner says, affirm it.

2. Say “yes, and…” After affirming what your partner says, add something else that allows the conversation to evolve.

3. Make statements. More specifically, make statements about what they said. This is the part that makes listening ACTIVE. Asking questions puts the other person on the spot. Making statements takes the pressure off of the other person and allows the listener to show that they understand by exploring the topic with additional anecdotes or personal experience. If humor is to be used, don’t use the humor to target the other person, as it can be offensive and miss the point altogether. Also, don’t target others because that’s a slippery slope as well. Try to target universal constructs or character traits that anyone can relate to. There are no mistakes. This works really well in improv, but in casual conversation, if you make a mistake that completely turns the other person off, no worries. There are always other people.

How did I become an active listener? Let me tell ya: Life has been a trip. On that trip, I’ve been lied to, cheated on, hoodwinked, pimped, played, hustled, run amuck, bamboozled, robbed, blindsided, and led astray. After enough of that, you either become a career victim or a really good listener. People are always telling you their motives. They are constantly revealing everything about who they are and what they’re up to. If you can suspend your need to be right long enough to allow the other person to feel powerful, they will tell you more than they intended. But be careful: there are other active listeners out there who are also hip to game and can make you feel that you’re safe enough to reveal your deepest secrets when you shouldn’t be trusting them. “Active listener” does not mean “good person.” Again: active listening is a skill that is practiced. It is not a virtue.

Active listening is also a keen problem solving technique. With enough practice paying attention, the brain begins to awaken to solutions that would otherwise be missed. I was having a conversation recently with an Anglophone Cameroonian business man named Phillip (that’s not his real name). He explained the history of conflicts between Anglophones and Francophones in Cameroon, conflicts that have recently escalated into deadly violence. Phillip discussed how the language barrier makes it difficult to expand his business throughout the country, so he was looking at other countries in Africa where he could pursue growth. Being a simple-solution oriented individual, I risked insulting Phillip by asking, “Why don’t you learn to speak French?” After a beat of silence which may have lasted 3 seconds, but felt much longer, he responded, “That’s just the way it is.” *

“That’s just the way it is” is a forfeiting of creativity fueled by frustration. I mean, things certainly are the way they are, but with creativity, the way of things serves as a foundation by which to explore new possibilities. People give up just short of making that discovery that could alter the course of reality towards something more peaceful and prosperous for everyone. Everything that makes life easier, from sliced bread to the internet, exists because someone thought outside of the status quo. The creativity we exercise may not necessarily change the world for everyone, but if we can make our own lives more convenient, we've won at life.

Phillip was not a creative thinker nor an active listener. Not only was he allowing local politics to dictate his business and send him to other countries (as though other countries don't have their own conflicts), after only knowing him for 2 hours, he decided that I was a suitable and necessary candidate to host his baby, a matter he wouldn’t drop even after I assured him that it was not a possibility in any dimension. I discovered that he wasn’t joking after he pressed to continue our conversation, during which we would work out the details of the arrangement. Phillip had not realized that his enjoyment of our conversation was the result of my work listening to him and had nothing to do with anything he had done. Put a pin in that…

In a world where conversation has been reduced to litigious filibusters designed to fatigue an opponent to concession, approaching conversation as an opportunity to connect to a fellow traveler on the journey of life is absolutely revolutionary. Moreover, the feeling of being heard and understood releases oxytocin, the hormone responsible for connection…the hormone released in the brains of mothers when they breast feed their children…the hormone released during orgasm to bring people closer to their sexual partner. Being understood is like having that first bison burger after a year of veganism. The active listener focuses her attention on the person in front of her because they are the most important person in the world in that moment. If she didn’t feel like engaging in conversation, she would be playing Sudoku on her phone while simultaneously emitting visible waves of flesh-disintegrating rage towards anyone who dared impose upon her moment of zen.

Back to the pin: I was annoyed by Phillip’s lack of self awareness. As a result, he became the example for this blog post and I will read him accordingly: Phillip achieved a significant level of material success and, as a result, believes that he should be important to other people. People probably don’t often listen to him because he doesn’t listen to them. He also probably attracts women who want his money because there is nothing else of substance to which to connect. He lives in a bleak world that reinforces its smallness and cannot expand. As a result, he has a lot of blind spots that keep him from being able to see the easiest solutions: like learning the other of only 2 official languages in his birth country so that he can do business with anyone locally.

You might be wondering, “If active listening is the ability to decipher a person’s motives, what were Phillip’s motives?” Great question. He values family and reputation. He wishes to be like his uncle: a man who is very wealthy and cares exclusively for his wife and children while maintaining boundaries and a positive reputation in the community. Phillip was horny and had a fear of abandonment, not much unlike any human, only he wasn’t aware of this (or wasn’t aware of how obvious it was). He was very hurt by being cheated on in his current relationship and saw having a child as a way to keep a woman from leaving him (and maybe even as a mode of revenge). He had national pride and adhered very strongly to tradition. Though he saw himself as being above reproach, he was critical of those who did not follow rules. His desire to be normal made it difficult for him to try new things or think outside of the box. He saw too much difference as a threat to the order of things, an order which has become a personal standard. How do I know all of this? Because he told me.

Phillip is not an anomaly. He’s an example of what happens when passive listening gets extreme, also known as “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong.” He didn’t care about me. He had his own agenda and I happened to be there. Social privileges like wealth and malehood are blinders that prevent us from seeing others’ perspectives. When society reveres us for traits that we didn’t cultivate on purpose, we don’t have to grow or see beyond what we think. Furthermore, we must defend those traits in order to justify the source of our self-relevance. The crippling effects of unearned privilege manifest as rigidity and the inability to adapt to change. We begin to feel threatened by an unpredictable reality that seems to constantly work to undermine our unchallenged and therefore weak sense of self. In such an unstable state, we lose our ability to trust our own thoughts and feelings. We become the threat to the world around us and ultimately, the greatest enemy to ourselves. It is no wonder, then, that we feel a soul connection with anyone who affirms our experience by listening actively.

In life, we are either learning or dying. Active listening is learning without judgment. It doesn’t take any special knowledge or mental capacity. It only requires the desire to practice. Practice cannot be bought and is only achieved by those willing to show their weaknesses. When people see that you’re trying to connect with them, even if you look stupid, they become more open to you and contribute more effort towards mutual understanding. Active listening is a choice and a way of life that says to others: I am not afraid of you because we’re in this together.

If you want to pursue active listening, ask a friend a question and then, empty your mind completely, allowing yourself to enter into their world, a world where their logic makes sense and their goals are realistic. It’s normal to want to judge your friend’s stream of consciousness, but wait until you’re no longer concerned that their thoughts have anything to do with you before attempting to judge them. This can feel difficult if you’re not used to it because the ego (survival instinct) needs to be in control. But remember: it’s just a conversation. You will not die from creating space for someone else to be heard.

*The marginalization of Anglophones in Cameroon is a problem that not only oppresses their voice in government, but also ignores their culture. Fights between the western and eastern regions have already gotten so far out of hand that it would be insensitive to suggest that the oppressed Anglophones simply "learn French" to join the majority and reunite the nation. However, in the context of this article, I think that it is reasonable to suggest that a businessman learn the languages of the people in his region. I am not Cameroonian and have not lived with the history and current conflict. I do not have a stance on the political matter. I hope that the people of Cameroon will do what is necessary to restore peace as quickly and painlessly as possible. I hope that someone is able to see the way it is and has the courage to say, "It doesn't have to be this way."

© Cathryn D. Blue, 2019. All Rights Reserved

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