I’ve always wished I could be the type of person who could command everyone’s attention with a funny story or witty comment. Especially in high school, when I went through my angsty teen phase, I always asked myself why my presence wasn’t loud enough, why everyone always ignored me even when I mustered up the courage to speak. So I depended on my most extroverted friends to take up the space that I could not.
I think a lot of my insecurity stems from being a middle child. Yes, it’s true that the middle child gets less attention from everyone. I always felt like I could never compete with my youngest brother for the same type of recognition that he received. Looking back, I appreciate the loose parenting I received in high school because it gave me room to grow, but as a child, it’s really frustrating when you feel forgotten.
I also have a fairly reserved nature. In high school, though, it seems like if you’re not loud, you won’t be heard. Society benefits those who are more extroverted. This makes sense because they provide energy in a situation. They keep people engaged. As a result of all this pressure to be outgoing all the time, I would beat myself up for not being more like my extroverted friends.
For me, large groups are intimidating and it takes a lot of mental energy to present myself in a more extroverted way. It’s so much easier to close myself off from everyone and let others speak than to raise my voice half a pitch higher in order to say what I was thinking. Of course, it’s important to speak out when you have an opinion. Discourse would not be possible without the voices of different people.
While I was so focused on being heard, however, I forgot to listen. Many good conversationalists have the ability to keep a conversation going, and because I wanted to be the best conversationalist I could be, there’s always pressure for me to immediately come up with a reply. Ideally in a one-on-one conversation, time would fly by because the conversation would naturally ebb and flow from topic to topic.
In conversations that I’ve had with others, many people have told me that sometimes when I’m silent after the other person has just said something, it comes off as dismissive. It’s not that I don’t care about what you say, but in fact, it’s the opposite. I am taking the time to understand what you say and digesting the information I am presented. I am listening to understand and not listening to reply.
Silences can be very awkward. It is especially so when you meet that person for the first time. A stalled conversation may mean that you guys don’t connect or that you’re a shy person who can’t carry conversation. You want to make sure that the other person likes you and will want to continue to be your friend. Pauses in the conversation are a red flag for bad communication.
When people listen with the intent to reply, they are too busy coming up with their own response to be listening to what the other person has to say. At that point, they are only engaging in the physical act of hearing, and not listening. Yale students may be really good at juggling a social life with academics and extracurriculars, but it’s just not possible to multitask your own thoughts while listening to the another person.
With this gap in understanding between each other’s thoughts in a conversation, there will be a gap in understanding each other as people. The point of a conversation is not to be the center of attention. It is learn more about the other person and to understand their stories and opinions. Yale is filled with so many great people, and it is detrimental to your own self if you don’t listen with the intent to understand.
Very often, a person’s story can remind you of a comment or story of your own, and it’s very difficult not to immediately share your response. If you compete for the other person’s attention, you invalidate what the person has to say by taking ownership over the other’s experience. Don’t interrupt that person, and don’t try to bring everything back to yourself.
So next time you grab a meal with someone, put the phone down and give them your full attention. Listen to understand without any pressure of having to immediately come up with a response, and let there be silence if you are thinking. At the end of a conversation, not only will the other person appreciate the time and patience you give to them, but also the fact that you give them space to be themselves.
Joyce Wu | firstname.lastname@example.org .