Can you listen when you’re upset?

If you’re in a difficult conversation and you realize that you’re too upset to listen, here are some skillful options to try.

Let’s Talk, page 41

Unsettling emotions such as embarrassment, disgust, frustration, fear, anger, sadness, and defensiveness are among the numerous reactions that can interfere with your listening ability. Emotional reactivity is especially common when the other person is talking about you, such as when you think they’re criticizing you. It’s natural to want to immediately defend yourself, but doing so isn’t necessarily the most skillful way to respond. Skillful listening includes noticing when emotions are coloring your perceptions. It also includes assessing how well you can listen when you’re feeling emotionally reactive.

If strong emotions are inhibiting your ability to listen, for whatever reason, consider taking a break from the conversation, before you say something you might regret later. You can gently interrupt the other person and ask to pause. You can say something like: “I’d like to continue listening to you, but I’m not feeling calm enough right now. Can we take a break?” Many people will wait for you to collect yourself if it means you’ll be more able to hear them out.

Next, you can step away from the other person and calm yourself. Here are some tips for calming down and regaining your equanimity:

Connect with your breath, particularly the exhalation. Release and relax with your exhalation. As you breathe, you can also bring your attention to your feet in contact with the floor or your pelvis in contact with the chair.

Identify what you’re thinking and feeling. Notice, with as little judgment as possible, the parade of thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing: “I think she’s wrong.” “I think I’m accommodating too much,” “I feel frustrated.” “I feel resentful,” “I feel doubtful,” “I feel my stomach tightening.”

Notice if you’re characterizing the other person. When you’re upset, it’s easy to focus on how bad you think the other person is acting. But doing that usually intensifies your emotional state. Instead of labeling them or their behavior, focus on what’s going on with you.

Remind yourself that emotions aren’t permanent. Even though you’re upset now, remember that you have felt calm in the past and will feel calm again.

After taking a few minutes to use some or all of the above techniques, you might feel calm enough to resume the conversation. Or you might not—and that’s okay. Sometimes discontinuing a conversation is preferable to continuing it and risk saying something divisive or that you’ll regret later. If it seems appropriate, you can offer to reschedule the conversation for another time.

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