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Sociability • Communication

The Subtle Art of Not Listening to People Too Closely

Most of the time, we must – of course – listen very carefully; when people tell us what they need, who they are and what matters to them.

But sometimes, just sometimes, to properly honour a relationship and do justice to someone’s  deepest intentions and potential, we may need to do something that sounds very peculiar indeed: not listen to them at all.

Gustave Caillebotte, Man Wearing a Blouse, 1884

When, for example, they tell us they’re going to resign from their job in the morning and spend the rest of their lives in a hut in the desert; when they insist that they hate everyone and everything; when they assure us their whole future is in tatters; when they announce an intention to throttle the president and murder their boss; when – alternatively, with yet more force – they proclaim they hate us, have no need for us and think the day we met was the worst day of their life… then maybe the fairest and most accurate thing could just be to pause and search for the complete meaning of what they are saying in the underside of their words rather than in their surfaces.

It might be that, whatever appears to be being said, what they are really telling us are things like: ‘I am very tired indeed’, or ‘I’m disappointed with myself’, ‘I want you to remind me why I matter to you’ or ‘I’m terrified of how much I depend on you.’

It’s a paradox familiar to parents: ‘Mummy I hate you and want you die’ probably doesn’t mean exactly that, it perhaps means something more akin to ‘I’m livid that you’re once again sending me to bed in the middle of a video game’ – just as ‘I’m never going to school again’ is most likely to mean ‘I’ve had an appalling day.’

We do ourselves an injustice not to extend comparable imagination to our fellow adults; we get into far more pickles than we should by failing to respect the basic human need occasionally to say certain patently wild and odd sounding things (especially late at night to those we really trust) as a way of gaining relief from some of the most acute and agonising edges of existence.

It might be that sometimes the most loving thing we can do is simply to allow someone to speak and then, with every possible caveat and precaution, not listen to anything they’ve said.

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