It's remarkable that people can communicate at all. It's much easier to 'reckon that you understand others than it is to actually mindfully and actively listen to them.

Your World is not My World

Perspective shapes how we interpret the world, and the world shapes our perspective. If you grew up in an abusive home, it shaped your interpretation of your relationships. If you grew up with a silver spoon in your mouth, it will shape your interpretation of what you are entitled to. We can change our perspective, but it’s pretty hard.

I’ve found it difficult to internalize that people have different perspectives and do not experience reality like I do. When I fail to, judgemental feelings creep in and I can become upset with people. When I succeed, compassion and empathy come freely. We carry different baggage towards different goals and other people’s baggage looks absurd to us.

Someone with generalized anxiety disorder is going to experience a different world than someone with ordinary levels of anxiety. A phone call with your parents may be pleasant for you, and week-destroying for others. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and its associated homework helps people with anxiety live happy lives so long as they keep up the work. You may never notice that the person you’re talking to struggles to get out of bed in the morning, so be kind.

My dog is an anxious rescue. He’s stressed at a level I don’t always perceive. If I do something slightly out of routine, it can worry him. If the world smells a bit different than it should, it ruins his entire walk. Unfortunately, CBT doesn’t work for dogs. I can calm him down from some specific triggers like a loud truck, but it would be really hard to generalize relax for all his infinite triggers, most of which are invisible to me.

There’s a idiom used to describe a similar point: we say people are “on another wavelength”. That idiom hasn’t clicked for me, I think a better analogy is “on another channel”. A astrologist talking to an astronomer about the stars is like having a CNN news segment on the Cartoon Network. If you’re on another channel than someone and aren’t mindful of it productive communication will be impossible.

Mindfully Listening

Mindfully listening allows us to understand others without assuming their perspective. We only do things mindfully the first time – and that includes communicating with other people. That’s why we have idioms, small talk, and other easy shortcuts. It’s also why kids have so much fun with pots and pans while adults can struggle to enjoy what they used to be fascinated by. When you think you’ve got something figured out, your brain turns off.

For many people it takes a serious injury or a long vacation to wake them up from the dream of their own perspective. These events force mindfulness by taking away the comfortable sameness of habit. That same mindfulness can be cultivated deliberately, anytime and anywhere.

If someone is upset about something important to them that is nothing to you, respect it. You can’t understand the moment from their perspective. Your everyday is someone else’s never. You are weird, few people agree with what you think is important. By staying mindful of our our weirdness, we can remember the weirdness of others, and be compassionate listeners.