In chapters 4-6 Nichols continues the educational journey of seeking masterful listening skills. As each chapter unfolds, it is easy to discern the complexity involved in not just listening, but listening well. I noticed three major themes throughout these chapters. In chapter four, selflessness is the major topic of discussion and how crucial it is to “suspend your own agenda” (Nichols, 2009, p. 77). In chapter five, Nichols begins speaking about differentiation of self and also how a person’s past history directly influences future dialogue.
Chapter six connects the previous two chapters together by covering the topic of emotional reactivity. Intentional or otherwise, these three chapters could just as very well be included in a book that covers Bowen family systems therapy. We are a prideful creature and have been since the day the decision was made to be like God in the Garden of Eden. And that pride has cursed us ever since. From the moment we are born, we immediately start demanding. Feed me. Change me. Hold me. Me, me, me. Is it any wonder that we grow up consumed with selfishness?
To be certain, babies do not remain babies nor do they continue to act so selfishly in such an overt and obvious manner. Okay. The first part is true and the second part is iffy. In actuality, some people do grow up and continue behaving in a childlike manner. Others grow up, but adapt to their environment and disguise their childlike manners covertly. I counted over a dozen times where Nichols either deliberately states “we must suspend the interests of the self” (Nichols, 2009, p. 74) (or something to that effect) or he surreptitiously alludes to the fact that faulty listening may indeed lie with you.
His use of sarcasm under the section “Haven’t We Talked about This Before? ” (Translation: “Why are you still hung up about this? ”) (p. 87) is beautifully textured with just the right amount of irony and cynicism to make a person stop and reread the paragraph. I know I did. While I am not a big supporter of sarcasm, it does have its place in dialogue to drive home a point as Nichols did. What about listening makes it such a burden to bear? Does a person feel that if they attend to another’s that their concerns in turn will be neglected? Discarded?
That they will never get their turn? That life must be equally balanced every minute, of every hour, of every day (Nichols, 2009, p. 92)? And where does this thinking originate? To a certain extent, I can locate mine. I have one sister, three years older, and remembering Christmas time at my house reminds me of the amount of presents we each received. Once we both could count, my parents ensured that both of us received the same number of gifts as the other. Inevitably, we grew older and are taste and desire for quantity changed to quality.
We understood that one of us may receive more or less presents than the other and that was alight with us. However, the money spent on either side had better be equal. Nichols dedicating an entire chapter to selflessness for being a prerequisite of proper listening did not happen by accident. He recognizes how important it is for a person “to set aside one’s own needs” for other’s to “feel validated [and] that they “do count” (Nichols, 2009, p. 92). And this is not only limited to listening either. Narcissistic personalities are no fun to be around.
It is the equivalent of being around a three-year-old who viciously takes a toy from another screaming “Mine! Mine! Mine! ” Part of being an adult means learning to share and also understanding that in the grand scheme of things every moment will not always be “fair and balanced”. In chapter five, Nichols rewinds the clock and examines the origin of listening and how past experiences directly influence future relationships.
He states, “From the start, our lives revolve around relations with other” (Nichols, 2009, p. 99) and that “the past is alive in memory—and it runs our lives more than we know” (p. 00). Preconceived expectations of how someone will act or react are detrimental to a positive, productive conversation. If you enter into dialogue with another and have predetermined what they will say or what they mean to say are you in a dialogue with another person or are you in a monologue with yourself? Attempting to decipher and decode what someone says before they speak or as they speak is simply the act of waiting your turn to speak.
This may occur because you have yet to obtain a differentiation of self and therefore exhibit “unrestrained emotionalism or childish” behaviors (p. 04). In 1 Corinthians it says “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” (13:11). According to Titelman (1998) differentiation of self is “an individual’s ability to separate his/her instinctually driven emotional reaction from his/her thoughtfully considered goal-directed functioning (p. 14). A simple laymen’s definition of differentiation of self could be “to simply grow up”. However, this is easier said than done for many.
The main idea behind differentiation of self is for a person to be their own entity who is free from other’s influence regarding having their own ideas and thoughts that may be contrary to others but still remain emotionally connected to the other person. When differentiation of self is achieved that person can, with impunity, listen to another without fear of losing themselves in the process. This achievement is not only crucial for healthy, stable relationships in the social arena, but is indispensable and essential for anyone wishing to engage in a therapeutic role. Nichols (1998) asserts “Our biases filter what we hear and how we respond.
Those biases take the form of preconceived expectations and defensive reactions” (p. 96). For anyone not in the counseling profession this means that their relationships will be tested and strained but not necessarily doomed. However, for those working in the counseling profession, entering into a therapeutic alliance with a client while holding prejudices, preconceptions, and predispositions of final outcomes may result in disaster. Take your pick among Rational versus Irrational; Logical versus Illogical; or Reasonable versus Unreasonable, and in each one you will discover sound thinking battling emotional reactivity every time.
And what causes this phenomenon of listening to the heart rather than the mind when past experiences typically show that the logical way, the rational, reasonable choice was or would have been the better alternative? Is it passion or blind faith that drives us to disregard all that we know will be the most effective way to handle something? With regards to listening, Nichols (1998) states “Something in the speaker’s message triggers hurt or anger, which provokes defensiveness and short-circuits understanding” (p. 111). I believe this goes hand in glove with his statement about intolerance.
What we can’t tolerate in others is what we can’t tolerate in ourselves” (p. 116). This is evidence that differentiation of self and emotional reactivity is inversely proportionate to one another. If a person has a highly developed differentiation of self then it stands to reason that he or she will be able to handle emotionally heated discussions level-headed and not take offense to another’s words. However, if a person has an under-developed differentiation of self, the opposite is true. The most likely response will be “reacting emotionally to what other people say” (Nichols, 2009, p. 17); consequently, turning the conversation into an argument.
And since “the worst thing about reactivity is that it’s contagious” (p. 118) if the other conversation participant likewise has an under-developed differentiation of self what ensues can most likely be compared to the carnage seen at the Roman Coliseum in the first century. In chapter six, Nichols once again employs the strategic use of sarcasm to point out numerous reasons concerning why people argue with us: “They’re selfish, ignorant, bossy, or just plain stubborn” (Nichols, 2009, p. 119-120).
Naturally fault cannot lie with you because that would mean that you are wrong and they are right which a selfish person cannot have. Nichols states “there are…two sides to every argument” (p. 120). A statement which I only partially agree. I believe that there are three sides to an argument: Their side, my side, and the truth. Now, whether or not that truth is one-sided for either party or a combination of is situational. But usually some truth will evident on both sides and therein lies the extending of the argument. Once a side latches on to their truth that is all that is repeated and everything else is disregarded.
Nichols suggestion to end an argument is for one side to listen first. “Don’t even start to argue…” (Nichols, 2009, p. 121). This is sound advice as usually the problem with disagreements is that the parties are so busy presenting their side that they rarely hear the other. And if you cannot hear the other side, then how on earth can you expect to reach resolution? Connecting the main theme of chapter four here we see not just the fact that a person must temporarily set aside their own agenda, but that they must accept the fact that may indeed be wrong.
Hard words to swallow, saying “I was wrong, you are right. ” It is as if life in its entirety is a competition and that conceding victory means losing a piece of whom you are. That in losing the other person owns a part of you that can never be regained. This is, naturally, the thoughts of a prideful and a selfish person. Our society today hands out participation trophies and ribbons to every member of the team. Whether they actively contributed or not and whether or not the team won or lost. Losing is a fact of life, but that does not mean that it destroys character.
On the contrary, it builds character. The same can be said for listening. Placing someone else’s problems before your own is a sign of gentle humility. It is a display of admiration and respect for another human being. You are literally saying to them that they matter. That what they have to say is so important that you are willing to completely disregard everything else in your life, at least temporarily, and listen to them. Jesus did this, not with just one person, but with all of humanity: past, present, and future.
He gave the ultimate sacrifice of His own life declaring to the world that His life was not His own and that God’s greatest creation deserved absolution and redemption. What if Jesus experienced the same selfishness that all other humans feel? Then there would have been no saving grace. No opportunity to fellowship with the Lord Almighty. To be selfish or humble is a choice that everyone must make at some time or another. A choice that should be made free from rationalizing and ulterior motives. A choice made because it is the right thing to do.