Listening With a “Third Ear”

‘I’m really worried about you.’

On the surface, it seems like a caring and considerate statement. And sometimes, it possibly is.

But a lot of the time, people are annoyed when someone says it to them. They don’t know why they’re annoyed, but they are. And because they don’t know why, they feel guilty—because ‘it’s mean of me not to appreciate that someone is worried about me.’

It all depends on the facts of the situation. Very often, this statement is made in the context of disagreement. If the communication were more honest it would go like this: ‘I don’t like what you’re doing or saying. Rather than stand up and say why, I will express pity for you.’

The verbal form the pity takes is: ‘I’m worried about you.’

In therapy school, I was taught to always listen ‘with a third ear.’ Actually, I didn’t need to be taught because I always had done this anyway. Listening with a third ear means: Look for the implied assumptions or premises in what a person is saying. That’s what I’m doing here.

Given the implied sentiments in that statement—’I’m worried about you’—it’s no wonder people who hear it often feel resentful.

It’s more than pity. It’s an attempt to psychologically disarm you, if you think about it. Rather than taking responsibility for expressing disagreement or dislike of what you’re doing, the person who says it is basically cutting off all discussion by being ‘nice.’

Of course, like all disarmament (except for the literal kind), it only has the power you ascribe to it.

In other words, if someone is critical of what you’re doing or thinking and handles this by being too nice for you to retaliate, then in effect all discussion is cut off. You’re left with an uneasy and unspoken annoyance (even rage in the more extreme cases), and you feel guilty for feeling this way for what on the surface seems like nothing more than consideration and compassion.

The only alternative is authenticity. An authentic person will not usually say, ‘I’m worried about you.’ An authentic person will say, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing (or saying). May I explain why?’ The second question is important. It shows a lack of presumptuousness. It shows, ‘I assume you’re not necessarily interested in what I have to say. But if you give me the green light, I will explain.’ It shows self-respect as well, because why waste your time and breath if the person is not motivated to hear your thoughts? Why not give your prospective listener responsibility for giving you that green light to speak, or not?

If you’re the kind of person who values personal responsibility and authenticity, who practices them yourself and always wants to see the same in others, then it’s understandable that you’d be mightily annoyed by the phrase, ‘I’m worried about you,’ especially when the context is as I’m describing. The person is masking pseudo-niceness as a way to evade responsibility. If the evasion could speak openly it would state, ‘I’m not going to say I disagree or dislike what you’re doing. But I do. But I won’t say it. I’ll shut off conversation about it by pretending that I’m nice and care about you, so we don’t have to talk about it—but I’ll get my point across, indirectly, just the same.’

To a person who strives to be authentic, straightforward and honest in all things, it’s a very disgusting tactic. A lot of you probably sense this but don’t necessarily have the words and thoughts for it. I’m giving you some of them here.

I’ve written a lot in this column about how the dominant ‘moral’ attitude among human beings to date has been ‘self-sacrifice is the moral ideal.’ The desire to be ‘good’ by this definition is what causes people to say things like, ‘I’m worried about you.’ It’s a twofer, if you think about it. One, it allows the person to be seen as noble and compassionate. ‘I care.’ No other proof of virtue (by the standard of self-sacrifice) is needed, right? Remember that even Hitler justified all he did by the standard of ‘the social good of self-sacrifice.’ Second, it allows the person to escape responsibility for what he or she is really saying or implying, for getting out into the open the simple truth that, ‘I don’t like what you’re saying or doing, and if you’re interested I’ll explain why.’

Another common motivation, paired with the desire to appear virtuous, is to escape confrontation. Most people go through most of their lives in most of their relationships (including significant ones) evading confrontation at all costs. They equate confrontation with authenticity, and by evading the first they sacrifice the second. And then they wonder why—to some extent—they end up feeling alienated, depressed or otherwise demoralized.

The human race has come a remarkable distance technologically and economically, against all odds given the tyrants who have reigned throughout most of human history. But people still have a long way to go when it comes to living as authentic and real human beings, untainted by pretense and deceit. It’s so simple to live this way, yet so elusive for so many.


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