Why Do I Keep Doing This Even Though It’s So Bad For Me?

Precious few people in the world are good listeners and God knows I’m not one of them. In fact, I’m a terrible listener. I’ve gotten only marginally better since I set the goal to get better a year or so ago. But just like my intention to exercise more, my intention to listen better has stalled out under the pressure of my graduate student existence.

But until coming to Harvard and taking the Practicing Leadership Inside and Out class from professors Lisa Lahey, Deborah Helsing, and Dobbin Bookman, I’ve never had to look at the root causes of why I don’t listen very well.

One of the most emotional experiences I’ve had here has been exploring that alongside a few other painful personality flaws that leech at the foundation of my leadership skills. Using a tool called the Immunity To Change map (co-created by Lahey with Robert Kegan), I was able to see that my inability to listen is tied to some really ugly truths.

Kegan & Lahey hypothesize that the reason I — or anyone with a troubling inability to do something that they really want to do — stays stuck in unproductive behaviors is because we are actually under the effects of our emotional immune system. This system protects us from the consequences of change and feelings like guilt, disappointment, and shame. The map reveals how your own personal immune system rallies against your best intentions.

For me, the map showed me that I use people as an audience and fill silence with talking. And because I’m so uncomfortable with emotion, I can’t tolerate sitting with anything except “the good feelings” like happiness and humor. My anxious talking can morph into linguistic narcissism that causes me to miss social cues that people are uninterested in what I’m saying and how they tune out.

This reckoning is just one part of the ITC map and reveals the competing and hidden commitments keeping me from listening. These include a commitment to being noticed, feeling important, feeling interesting and/or valuable, and staying in control. Once I wrote those down, I felt instant shame because they’re true.

But they’re also in service of deep-seated anxieties. Once I actually identified them, they brought tears to my eyes. I am terrified of being erased, or disappearing, or that I’ll become an afterthought to anyone I care about. It doesn’t matter that I’m a grown woman, there’s still a traumatized ten-year-old inside me who’s afraid of feeling more pain, being revealed as useless and worthless.

The final piece of the map is charting the big assumptions that undergird those fears. They include assumptions about how people judge me, that others need my help, and that I have a limited amount of interactions with people which comes with a “shelf life” of likability that has to be used quickly.

Looking at the entirety of the map, it makes perfect sense that I’m a lousy listener. I operate as if my life depended on me talking and my emotional immune system operates on that truth.

My next step is being brave enough to test these assumptions and consciously suppress my immunity to change. Thankfully, I’ve already had some difficult, but useful practice in accepting feedback from classmates in my small workplace lab team that I’ll write about in another post.

Putting It To Work For You

If you’d like to try this for yourself, click this link to the process. If you’re in a hurry and just want an overview, here’s the quick summary:

Step one: Set an improvement goal. It should be something that if you change it, it will make a dramatic difference in your life.

Step two: List the behaviors that you notice you’re doing that keep you from meeting your goal. The most honest (and painful) these are, the more revealing your map will be.

Step three: Figure out what worries/fears are holding you in this pattern and list them as bravely as you can. Under that, admit the commitments you’ve made to keeping yourself from feeling those fears. These should explain why you’re doing what you listed in step two.

Step four: What are the stories that you’re telling yourself about these things you’ve listed in step three? What have you accepted as “the truth”? For example, I believe that a good person is always ready to help someone solve their problems and I want to be seen as a good person.

Step five: Pick an assumption and test it out. What would happen if I just listened to someone talk to me about their problems? If I simply asked them to “tell me more” or “help me understand that a little better,” then they might actually be able to get clarity on their problems and solve them without needing me to jump in with advice.

You can learn more by reading the book. In any event, you can try this process as a sort of preemptive New Year’s Resolution — or maybe a kind of emotional Pilates to try in all the opportunities to work it over the holidays.

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