Seeing Conversations Clearly

Have you ever decided to look through a window but instead focused on your reflection?

It’s a popular paradox: We know the benefits of paying attention to others, yet our social interactions often become exercises in self-absorption.


Most of us are good talkers, but mediocre listeners. Our conversational intentions may be noble, but it’s easy to devolve into selfish agenda-seeking to promote or protect ourselves. We look to others to reflect back only what we want to see and hear, and, in doing so, we cordon-off any feedback that could help us expand and grow.

According to a 2009 report in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: “(We) are more likely to attribute negative outcomes to the intentions of another person…”.

In other words, we armor ourselves against any blame, ridicule, or abandonment that we’re sure will be hurling in our direction at any moment. However, it’s nearly impossible to benefit from interactions when we’re suspicious or dismissive of our conversation partners.

The impenetrable boundaries we defensively create only stunt our growth and wellbeing. A former client once likened her life to “living outside in the rain, looking through a locked window at all the safe, dry, and happy people inside.” Over the years, I’ve heard many versions of this stormy story. In fact, a good portion of my professional day is devoted to helping clients break such self-involved spells.

Which begs the question: How can we effectively navigate life if we’re not accurately observing it?

People, Places, and Things

Wellbeing is the product of interaction and integration. Think about it: When we learn, there’s always someone else involved – a teacher, a coach, a parent, a friend. Even when self-educating, we rely on words and instruction someone else has written down. From our very beginnings, we are the culmination of our social exchanges. Studies prove proper Identity Formation pivots on the adequate exposure infants have to stimuli in their environments.

Yet, even armed with these insights, most of us get “caught in our reflections.” We are convinced that ruminating about our pasts or worrying about our futures will keep us safe. Nothing can be further from reality: Paying attention to and using the accurate information generated by this very moment is the surest way to ensure lasting happiness.

“I never learn anything from listening to myself.” 

― Barbara Kingsolver

It’s far more valid (and a lot more enriching) to “get out of our heads and get into our lives.” Thoughtful conversation allows us to investigate alternate angles of perception, entertain different possibilities, and challenge ourselves toward intellectual and emotional expansion.

Opening Windows

Here are five CLEAR steps for seeing past our reflections and looking toward healthier engagement with others: 

  1. Curiosity: Ask questions. Actively throw your interest to your conversation partner. Stay alert to the possibility of learning something new.
  2. Listen: Paraphrase what you’ve heard. Summarizing demonstrates you’re listening and allows your conversation partner to correct any misperceptions you may have about what they’ve said.
  3. Empathize: Even if it seems like a grain of sand on a vast beach of unreasonableness, a little affinity goes a long way. Stop expecting agreement. Start accepting (and appreciating) your conversation partner’s views as valid alternatives to your perceptions.
  4. Authenticity: Let the other person in. Use “I Statements” to express yourself. For example: “When you say the sky is orange, it confuses me because I see a blue sky.” Then, prompt your conversation partner to respond to your confusion, not your perception of sky color.
  5. Respond: Don’t react disagreeably. Reactions are defensive, while responses consider another’s point of view. Remember, there are several ways to see the same thing. Skies can be orange, depending on the time of day you experience them – Stop fighting to be right, instead put your energy toward mutual understanding.

Become Far-Sighted

Decide to step away from the limits of your reflection. Roll up your shades of doubt, throw open the windows of opportunity, and cast your gaze toward the unknown. Healthy interaction provides learning opportunities for us all – whatever color the sky happens to be.