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Bite Your Tongue

August 16, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

How long can you listen without interrupting?

I read recently that the average individual listens for 17 seconds before interrupting. The book didn't cite the study but my personal experience (and probably yours too) bears witness to this fact. How's that for a sobering statistic? How's that for a little reality check on our egos?

Many of us pride ourselves on being good listeners, on being nurturing and empathic friends. But the numbers tell a different story.

It's very hard not to interrupt. We have a personal experience to relate that's right on point. We have an insight that's too good not to share. We're excited. We're impatient. We're bored...we're self-centered.

How many times do you find yourself just waiting for someone to finish speaking (not really listening to what they have to say!) so it can be your turn? The truth is that if you wait until they're actually done, you should give yourself a pat on the back! How many times do you just jump in, unable to wait a second longer?

We rationalize the importance of what we have to say. We imagine being branded socially inept if we aren't an involved participant in every conversation.

Real relationships are forged when caring is expressed through listening.

But it's all a façade. The main reason we continue to interrupt and to do it so frequently is because we're so focused on ourselves. What counts is me. What matters are my thoughts and my expression of them.

It's so hard to keep quiet, to bite our tongues, to hold the words back.

I was thinking about this idea when I went to pay a shiva call today. Jewish law teaches that the conversation is in the hands of the mourner. If he wants to speak, he does. If he wants silence, the room is quiet. Not only is there no obligation on the visitors to keep up a steady stream of conversation but if they do, it's jarring. It removes the focus from the departed loved one to, at worst, the trivial and to, at best, the interests of the speaker. Everyone can understand that this is inappropriate. Being the "life of the party" full of witty repartee is not a recognized value in a shiva home. Here real friendship and empathy are expressed by silence.

But this understanding is not limited to moments of pain and tragedy. Focusing on our own social standing and clever conversation may make us briefly popular. But real relationships are forged when caring is expressed through listening, when my needs are subjugated to yours, when I'm focused on helping you and not on my thoughts on ideas, when I keep my mouth shut.

It's not easy to be a good listener. It's not easy to be a good friend. But not interrupting is definitely a good place to start.



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