Editor's Note: This article was authored by Stefan Ravalli, for the Institute for Organizational Mindfulness (IOM). Thanks, Stefan!
“Am I A Narcissist?” Is the Wrong Question
If you’re reading that comic panel and thinking, “That’s me! That’s what I do when I don’t know what to say! Gosh, I’m just so uniquely, extraordinarily self-centered,” you’re not alone. And you’re doing it again. It’s okay, that’s how your mind is designed: to place yourself in the center of all information you receive. After all, the story of your life can only have one main character - and who better than you, the person leading that life?
And yet, it also turned out to be one of my biggest communication barriers. I noticed that every time I tried to listen to someone (customer, coworker, friend, partner) I ended up lassoing everything I heard to my own experiences. Although this tendency gave me words to spit out when I opened my mouth, and a reference point from which to relate, I never felt like I was really connecting to them.
When a client/co-worker is sharing a need, concern, or anything that’s important to them, and I offered one of those “me-centered” responses, misunderstandings, frustrations, and other barriers to connection resulted. But when I learned how to provide a “de-centered” response, it brought an ease and synchronicity to our relationship.
What is a De-Centered Response?
Imagine listening and responding to something with little or no reference to yourself or your own experiences. It’s understandable if this sounds like taking yourself away from the conversation will remove your presence or agency from it, but you’ll often be surprised at the results that it brings. It’s usually shocking how effective these finer, more graceful ways of navigating a situation tend to be, especially since they’re so much simpler and less effortful to execute. Before looking at just how to execute de-centered responses, let’s look at some of the benefits I’ve found it brings.
Why is a De-Centered Response So Impactful?
Just as you exist at the center of your own story, other people exist at the center of theirs. Honoring their centrality (rather than fighting for it by centering yourself in their story) makes people feel valued and dignified.
Listening like this absorbs you in the important (and often overlooked) details of their experience, allowing you to ask better questions, gather better information, and expand your perspective.
It shows that you seek to understand the person, rather than require them to hear and understand you. People always gravitate towards those that demand less energy and attention of them. And, most importantly, very few people ever feel heard or understood so imagine the value that you might be bringing to someone’s life by providing an ear that’s unfiltered by your own ego.
Taking yourself out of the equation neutralizes any whiff of agenda, which allows people to feel more comfortable, be themselves, and further lean into the relationship.
Why Don’t Me-Centered Responses Work?
In case you’re still thinking, “But what if people can really gain a lot from my perspective?” Well, of course, they can, whenever it’s appropriate to share. But when it’s impulsively shared, these are some of the consequences to look out for:
Notice if you’re not learning and expanding your perspective much from an exchange. This happens when your default response involves just repeating some chapter of your story that you’ve told a million times.
Notice if people become impatient or annoyed because there is something they want to be heard, but you’re drowning it out with a self-indulgent share. Even though people will rarely call you out on it, making things about you is often obnoxious. Once again, people usually get impatient when things aren’t about them.
Everyone wants to be understood on their own terms, not filtered through yours.
Techniques to De-Center How You Communicate
It’s understandable if breaking the habit of me-centered responses seems like you’re leaping into a dark chasm. After all, if we can’t respond to something we’re being told with an account of our own experiences (this seems easiest to do since our past experiences are so familiar), what do we say?
Exactly. If you want to break a habit, then you need replacement behaviors. So, using principles of mindful communication, here’s how to listen in an open way that de-centers you from the conversation and allows others to feel heard and dignified:
Get curious about the needs and feelings of the speaker. Beyond just looking at the content of what they are sharing (i.e. the words), try and understand what’s driving the words. Ask yourself, “Why are they speaking?” and “What could someone say to help relieve an uncertainty, struggle or any unmet need they might be experiencing.”
Replace any “That reminds me of a time…” response with, “That sounds...” or “That must have been…” And then insert a guess at what their experience might have been; it’s fine if you’re inaccurate, because the guess shows you’re seeking to understand. People are also designed to immediately correct someone’s misunderstanding of something and will appreciate the opportunity to do so. If you’re really unsure you can word a response something like this, “Sounds frustrating since you seem to need your team to care as much as you do. Am I right?”
Questions are good...if they’re the right ones. There’s no strict rule about this, except to be aware of the intention driving a question you ask: are you prying for more information that’s juicy or exciting to your intellect, or are you seeking to understand the speaker better? Do you have their interests in mind, or your own? Basically, any question can be checked by its own question, “How is this question serving them?”
How to Practice De-Centered Communication
Be ready for a beautiful, clumsy process of trial and error. Humans are complex and difficult to really understand (after all, people rarely understand why they’re really doing something, so there’s no need to expect yourself to fully know their intentions). As always, start practicing this where it’s most achievable and least consequential if you stumble. As you become a more confident de-centered listener, then you can raise the stakes and apply the techniques to more challenging situations.
What A De-Centered Response Isn’t
It’s important to remember that listening like this isn’t about ignoring or negating your own needs. I wouldn’t be a responsible mindfulness teacher unless I insisted that you can (and must) always be aware of whatever you’re feeling or struggling with. You can acknowledge whatever comes up internally. And if you really need to express your experiences to someone you’re trying to be a de-centered listener for, you can add something like, “I really want to understand what you’re sharing further. It would be helpful to me if I just first shared this…”
And I’ll repeat that de-centered communication never means that your knowledge or experiences don’t matter. Of course they do. You’ll have multiple chances to draw from them, this exercise is just meant to loosen the habit of making this the first thing you reach for in conversation. After all, you can’t fully engage your knowledge and experiences to help others if you don’t fully listen to where they’re coming from and know particularly what they need. If you jump to a me-centered response, you’re more likely to project your own needs on them.
When it comes to sharing your own experiences, the most powerful change you can make is in the intention driving your me-centered sharing. What would it look like if whatever you shared about yourself was more in the service of others? Bit by bit, you can drip these principles and techniques into your daily interactions and observe the impact made by even the smallest shifts.
Stefan Ravalli is a meditation and mindful service teacher. His education project ServeConscious seeks to give people and businesses the tools to transform their service roles through mindfulness and make service a medium for growth, power, and transformation.
Institute for Organizational Mindfulness (IOM) is a membership association of researchers, educators, and executives, with a shared mission to bring science-based neural training into the mainstream of business, healthcare, education, and government. We're working to create a global community of shared experience, conduct research, define standards and practices, develop educational programs, and determine the measures, metrics, and analytics for organizational mindfulness.