The Art of Not Listening

by | March 10, 2009

  • My Vault

I'm sorry, that job is filled." "For that position you need a Master's degree." "You haven't sold batteries before?" "You are at least two years away from a position like that." "You're only worth thirty-five thousand dollars a year." Why do we put up with messages like these? Life is difficult enough when things are going great. Yet we still listen.

Many have stood between where we are and where we wish to go and somehow they have gained enormous credibility with us throughout our lives. Maybe we listen because we love them, maybe we listen because we were taught to respect these people for some reason or another. Maybe we listen because we fear them. Maybe we listen because we think their opinion about us comes from a place of experience and wisdom. We've reasoned that they really know us therefore they must be right. What if they are right? SO WHAT! What's right this moment may not be right five minutes from now. And five minutes from now you are still going to be you.

If you buy in to someone else's assessment of you then they are right about you, even if everything else inside you says they are wrong. Have you ever been told you couldn't do something only to do it and find the experience wonderful? Have you ever been told you couldn't do something only to do it and find the experience disastrous? I am sure the answer to both of these questions is an emphatic 'yes.' In both cases you didn't listen to others, instead, you listened to yourself. The difference; one experience made you feel like a genius, they other made you feel like an idiot. What we listen to inside ourselves is basically driven out of fear of reprisal. Once we free ourselves from fear of reprisal we can simply act sociopathic. But I don't recommend it. There are too many of those out there already. Still, consider moving yourself toward a dream vocation without fear of reprisal. Consider a pure freedom from all of the negative voices and signals that say, "Stop! Stay where you are! Don't pursue what you're pursuing. You're not trained for this, etc. etc. etc."

To do this you need to adopt a pattern of selective listening. Selective Listening takes place when we filter out those outside messages, usually made by Dream Killers, and press on toward our destination by listening to the inside messages coming from ourselves. Selective listening is best when we incorporate those outside messages into our inside messages and fuel our hope and inspiration. Selective listening is worst when we let outside messages take over our inside messages and quell our hope and inspiration. You've probably heard professional athletes say things like, "I love it when they boo me. It just makes me work harder." You've also heard things like, "When we hear the home crowd cheering us on, we get the feeling we're invincible." Two different messages, same motivation. In other words, they have incorporated the outside messages into their inside messages and produced inspired results. They have selectively listened. In each case they heard, "Now is my time to push myself even further and closer toward my goal."

Selective listening is not always easy. In-fact the more emotionally tied you are to the message, the more difficult the message will be to filter. But what is your alternative? How about you just give in to another's assessment of you and prove them dead right? If that's the case I suggest you hang out at the beach with the rest of the Cyanea capillata and wash upon the shore every summer where some snotty-nosed kid pours sand all over your tentacles. By the way, jelly fish have no brains---get it! Why would you let someone else determine your worth in any endeavor, especially when: 1) they are not living your life for you 2) they don't know what yearns deep inside you 3) they don't know what you believe you are capable of achieving.

Sure, not everyone who sends negative messages is trying to harm you. In fact, most think they are actually doing you some good. I like to have my English corrected when I sound like an idiot. It saves me from embarrassment until the next time I show heinous abuse of the language. We cannot stop the messages from coming but what each of us chooses to listen to our choice. I merely suggest you make that choice with prudence. Not everything is as difficult as people say it is and nothing is as easy as you think it is. When you choose not to listen and forge ahead you must accept with that choice the new obstacles that undoubtedly will come with your choice, and hopefully one of them is NOT jail, unless jail IS your desired destination. Some of the obstacles might frustrate you into regressing to your previous comforts while others, once overcome, will have you looking forward like Magellan on the high-seas. Those are the times when you'll say to yourself, "What was the big fuss about?" Okay, the lesson in communication! After all, communication is innate and often not too difficult to do when you are willing.

The Communication Process, according to any university textbook, involves five steps (some circular process or something like that): 1. a sender of a message 2. a vehicle by which the message is sent 3. a receiver of the message (i.e. the listener) 4. an interpretation of the message 5. feedback of the receiver to the sender

In the examples above we saw two seemingly different messages sent (sender) via the same medium (vehicle.) The athletes (receiver) understood (interpreted) the messages similarly and therefore responded (feedback) similarly in both circumstances. Since their interpretation was the same in both circumstances it should be easy to understand why they reacted similarly.

Selective Listening and the Communication Process aren't just about taking lemons and making lemonade. Afterall, whose feelings aren't hurt when someone tells them they aren't good enough for the Building Cleaning Crew Team? Who wouldn't get angrier than a lion when they're told, "If only you had taken Bat Dissection instead of Human Anatomy we'd let you run the Sasskoogee Zoo?" Negative vibes hurt regardless of the form they come in and from whom they came. They may sting a little less from those you hate and they may sting a lot more from those you love. No matter how much they sting, however, you cannot avoid your interpretation of the message. That is when you must ensure your feedback moves you closer to your vocational pursuit.

Your feedback can take many forms, once again I do not recommend anything that moves you closer to jail. Instead, I ask you to consider three things before responding to seemingly negative messages: 1) will I move further along the path toward my vocational pursuit by taking these messages to heart? 2) how much should I care what this message is trying to tell me? 3) do I really understand the intent of this message?

The answer to question one should always be 'NO.' While negative messages may incorporate a latent but positive message (LPM), "Joey, you're not trained for this task" where the LPM is, "A little more training for Joey might be good" they should NEVER be taken to heart. Negative messages taken to heart stay there and eat away at the hope and inspiration that drives us. Instead, negative messages should be appreciated for their LPM and then that positive message should be acted upon if the action seems worth taking& to YOU! Sometimes the LPM does not immediately reveal itself but a response (feedback) to the message is required. The best response in this situation is to confidently say, "Thank you, I'd like to take your comments under advisement." It buys you the time to consider what the LPM might be and let's the message sender know you haven't been deterred. No tirade or fit or four-letter soliloquy can do as much to strengthen your position toward your pursuit.

You should care about the message being sent depending upon how much you believe the message will inhibit your vocational pursuit. If the message is, "Computer geeks CAN'T strategically form a marketing behemoth to create one of the most profitable companies in the world," and your name is Bill Gates then you probably don't have to pay much attention to it. If on the other hand the message is, "You're 63, Bill, and you can't read the balance sheet of a $500,000 Company. I think you are a little early to be applying as Jack Welch's replacement." Then you have to consider the message a little more seriously. Chances are both the message and it's viability to you are somewhere in between. If you do not understand the intent of the message, or even if you do, it NEVER hurts to ask someone to explain what they mean by the message. This is a great tool for forcing someone to say emphatically what they were probably trying to say euphemistically. For example: you are in an interview and your would-be boss says, "I'm through hiring those college kids, they never stick around."

Instead of sitting there and trying to figure out for yourself this infinitely permutable message just sent to you, simply ask, "Sir, or Ma'am, what exactly do you mean by that statement?" When they hem and haw and finally respond to say, "Well, I am considering you because you have no college education and therefore I don't think you'll quit easily cause this is a good job for you." you now have the choice of whether or not you wish to continue the interview process with someone who's vision of the world is so small.

Of the three considerations I'd pay most attention to number one. What someone intends with their messages or how much you should care about them can often lead to analytical and emotional paralysis. These two considerations should be understood on the surface because they do have merit but should not be given overriding credence. Number one, however, should ultimately determine your choice of feedback and your subsequent actions. This doesn't mean being rude nor does it mean getting angry even if the situation seemingly dictates it. 'Bitter words indicate a weak cause,' 'You catch more flies with honey,' 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,' every fortune cookie creator knows these things. And why waste your time? There's always someone else who is willing to send you the message you want to listen to. Go out and find them.

Anthony Cantor is an Author and Human Resources Consultant serving corporations and individuals in the Washington D.C. area. You may contact him via DocVoc Enterprises or email him at

Filed Under: Job Search

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