I’ve started so let me finish

I’m a stickler for good table manners. I can’t bear it when people don’t pick up their feet. And finger drumming really gets my goat. I have, I am aware, multiple bêtes noires; but by far the most unpleasant “bad habit” in my book is interrupting. As bad behaviour goes, it’s one of the most common and also the most damaging to interpersonal relationships, but luckily, it’s also one that’s relatively easy to correct.

Interrupting during a conversation takes two main forms: cutting someone off to make one’s own point and finishing someone’s sentence for them. Both drive me mad. The former simply shows a lack of respect for the other person, their right to express themselves, and what they have to communicate. It says, “What I want to say is more important and/or interesting than what you are already in the middle of saying, and frankly, I don’t much care about what you’re trying to tell me”. The latter annoys me because I want to be allowed to express my opinions in my own specifically chosen words. When someone cuts me off and finishes my sentence for me, they almost never say exactly what I was going to say, so I feel like my point is misrepresented and I’m not being fully “heard”. I regularly want to shout “I’m not running out of steam and I don’t need help to make my point; am I just not speaking quickly enough for your liking?” but of course, I’m British, so I just seethe silently instead…

Being regularly interrupted makes the “victim” feel unheard, frustrated, disrespected – none of which helps build a relationship with another person, which, ironically, is often the point of having a conversation in the first place. I don’t know anyone who enjoys being interrupted… which is odd since we are almost all both victims and perpetrators of this destructive conversational habit.

So, what happens when you’re the interrupter? In addition to the message you’re sending the person you’re talking to, you’re not doing yourself any favours either. How stressful is it to be responsible for both sides of a conversation – both your own and the end of every sentence your partner tries to get out? How tense do you get when, instead of listening and then responding, you’re formulating your reply to your friend as they’re talking so that you can start making it even before they’ve finished? How often do you finish someone’s sentence only for them to say, “Well, no, that’s not where I was going with that”?

Curbing the urge to interrupt – to butt in with my idea or push people to make their point quicker – is something I’ve been working on for a while now, and I have to say the benefits are both powerful and immediate. When I’m not thinking ahead to my turn to speak, I can fully listen to friends, right to the end of their sentence or story – which lets me relax and makes them feel unrushed and heard – which makes them relax too. Since I’ve heard their full point in their own words, my replies are more pertinent and structured; which makes for a richer conversation.

It’s no fun being interrupted, but short of actually calling someone out on their bad habit, there’s not much you can do about it. But in a spirit of being the change you want to see in the world, you can work on your own tendency to interrupt, and it really is win-win. The less you do it, the better your conversations and, as everyone relaxes and gets used to being fully heard, the less likely it is that you yourself will be interrupted. So, next time you’re chatting to friends, mentally note how often you start talking before others have really finished. The first step in changing a habit is to acknowledge it – and when you do start noticing, I bet you’ll shock yourself. And when you start to stop yourself and force yourself to listen patiently, you’ll be amazed at the effect it has on both the people around you and on your own stress levels and enjoyment of the conversation!

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Turn over a new leaf in 2011

A new year, a new chapter of life to be written. Choose your words wisely and make your new year’s resolutions work for you.

I am, and always have been, a notebook junkie. A handbag-friendly size, a pretty cover, and all those clean white sheets waiting to be filled are a writer’s nirvana. Something about those empty pages strikes a note of hope and promise – they represent a new set of ideas, new journal entries, a new chapter in my scribblings. Knowing that, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that I also love the turn of the year. The change in date from 31st December 2010 to 1st January 2011 is like a beautiful new notebook for me, and this year, the date is particularly delicious, isn’t it? 1/1/11. Doesn’t that just make you want to clean the house, detox your liver, and – yep, you knew where I was going with this – make some resolutions?

But wait, hold it, back up a second! You don’t start a new notebook when the old one isn’t yet filled up, do you? So why be in a rush to jump into making worthy resolutions without properly rounding out 2010? There’s not much point setting new objectives without first taking stock of where you are now and how far you’ve come since last January. While many advocate taking a look at the ups and the downs of the past year, I’m afraid that doesn’t suit me at all. I find that most people are only too keenly aware of anything that hasn’t gone well and that ending the year listing only the positive points of 2010 is much better for the soul. Think hard about all the great things that happened this year – did you learn a new skill, take a trip, change jobs, meet new people? Don’t just count the big achievements, think of the smaller, daily victories as well – managing to stick to an exercise regime, finding time for a phone date with a far-flung friend, remembering birthdays… We’ll happily kick ourselves for forgetting to send a card in time, but how often do we pat ourselves on the back for getting that sort of thing right? Celebrating the joys of 2010, however big or small, is guaranteed to put you in the right frame of mind to contemplate objectives for 2011.

Strengthening your resolve

I happen to enjoy making resolutions. I find setting an objective or deciding to make a change wholly invigorating and motivating. However, I am aware that I am very much in the minority on this issue. It seems that many people find the post-Christmas push to Improve Oneself a heavy burden and see it as a thinly-veiled excuse for self-punishment after festive excess. Who can blame them? It’s the middle of winter, we’re all tired after the party season, we’re facing three of the bleakest months of the year, and it’s now that we decide to start depriving ourselves of pleasures and forcing our bodies to the gym. A recipe for disaster.

Don’t should on yourself

The main problem with most resolutions is that they are all too often the result of people shoulding on themselves. I’ll wait while you re-read that sentence. Yes, people should on themselves. Instead of identifying a resolution that will truly boost happiness, all too often we jump on the insidious bandwagon of “I really should be healthier” or “I should shape up a bit”. These resolutions come from a negative place and generally take a negative verb form – I will not drink, I will not eat chocolate. I’m not saying these resolutions aren’t fundamentally good ones – of course we all need to take care of our physical health, but maybe we can do it in a way that doesn’t damage our mental health!

Start as you mean to go on

This year, how about making positive resolutions based on what you want to do? If better health is your goal, make it more about your decision to favour positive choices than a battle to resist unhealthy options. Think “I choose to eat a fresh, nutritious salad this evening”, rather than “I can only eat salad, and I mustn’t have dessert”. If changing jobs is your aim, say, “I want to spend an hour working on my CV this weekend” rather than “I have to update my CV”. Think as much about the phrasing of the goal as the goal itself.

Another way of self-motivating is by setting an intention for the year, rather than an objective. Your resolution could simply be a one-word theme for 2011. “Healthy”, for example – health-consciousness will inform all my choices for the year. Or “give” – I will become more generous in 2011. Of course, a one-word intention has to be translated into actions, but once you have the theme, the rest comes quite naturally. In any situation, you might ask, “What’s the generous thing to do here?” You may react with generosity to a news item by sending some money to a charity, or by donating some time to relief work. When faced with a difficult colleague, you might give him the benefit of the doubt, choosing to believe he’s just having a bad day, rather than jumping to conclusions about his inherent and unchangeable evilness.

Don’t blot your copybook

Resolutions are supposed to be tools for self-improvement, not sticks with which to beat yourself. Make sure that the intentions you set yourself for 2011 serve you, bringing you closer to goals that will increase your happiness and prompting life-affirming decisions. Think of the new year as a beautiful leather-bound notebook with heavy cream pages and a sewn-in place marker. Make sure you write in it with the best pen you can find, using your nicest handwriting, and make sure that whatever you write is kind, loving and positive. Live the year on purpose.