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What’s YOUR Sticking Point?

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What’s YOUR Sticking Point?
What’s YOUR Sticking Point?

I’ve written recently about starting and finishing the big projects in your life, which leaves the big, wide middle — the day-to-day slog of working steadily to get to done.

When we start something new, we often have a huge burst of enthusiasm and energy that carries us through the early stages. But eventually the newness wears off, and the project settles down into a daily grind. We reach a sticking point of one kind or another and get hung up.

A sticking point is the point in your project where your energy and excitement level are not enough to overcome whatever resistance the project poses. There are lots of different kinds of sticking points, but for simplicity’s sake, we can categorize them into two types:

  • External: Obstacles placed in your way by people and situations you do not control, such as your work situation, family members, illness, etc.; and
  • Internal: Obstacles of our own making, that arise out of our own thought processes, insecurities, lack of knowledge or understanding, and so on.

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External Sticking Points

As much as we might hate to admit it, as humans living in society, we are subject to pressures from all around us. Co-workers, family members, bosses, teachers, friends, investors, organizations, governments, the media, and society itself all play a role in our lives — and any one can occasionally throw a barrier in our way.

Short of barricading ourselves somewhere away from the outside world, there are only two things to do about external obstacles:

  1. Minimize them as much as possible, or
  2. Deal with them and move on.

Here are some of the external pressures that become sticking points, and some tips on dealing with them:

  • Finances: The number one reason most businesses fail is lack of available funds, and the same holds true for lots of other kinds of projects. Financial advisers suggest setting up a reserve fund with several months of operating expenses in it; for personal projects, it’s a good idea to add a small amount to a “project fund” to carry you through any rough spots.

    Bootstrapping principles also apply: is there a way to make some interim money from the part you’ve finished so far? Could you organize a class or workshop to make use of the expertise you’ve developed in pursuing your project? Is there a physical product that could be developed — a website or e-book with tips, maybe?

    Depending on the project, you may be able to secure outside funding. Writers can often get grants, projects with commercial potential can often get investors, and so on. Sometimes it’s even worth getting a loan, though you’ll want to borrow against the project’s returns, not against your own already-stressed personal finances. What I mean is, don’t borrow more than your project can reasonably be expected to make, because if you’re having trouble dealing with finances now, chances are you’ll have trouble dealing with them deferred into the future.

  • Time: Finding time to work can be a hassle, especially when your schedule changes or new commitments come up. Make sure you maintain a reasonable amount of time to work in your schedule as a “hard” commitment — that is, a time that’s fixed in your calendar — so you can say “Between 8am and 10am I work on x; I can do y after that.”

    Lots of people run into time problems because they haven’t set a fixed time to work on their projects; they figure they’ll work on them “in their spare time” or “whenever the opportunity presents itself.” Well, there is no spare time — there’s the same 24 hours in every day! And the opportunity never presents itself — we have to make the opportunity, or we lose it.

  • Interruptions: Unless you’re a hermit, other people have a claim to at least some of your time. Your friends want to go out, your family wants quality time with you, your boss wants that report, and so it goes. Along with setting a fixed time to work, try to set up an “interruption-free zone” — explain to others that when you’re in this place at this time you’re working on something very important to you. Turn off the phone, close your browser and email, shut the door, and work. Ask someone else to be your gatekeeper in those times (a spouse, an older child, a roommate, a co-worker; perhaps you can return the favor when they’re working on their stuff?).

    You’re going to have to develop some discipline, too — get in the habit of asking, when temptation arises, if the lost time is worth the rewards of succumbing. Explain that you’re free after whatever time you’ve set aside. And schedule time for goofing off — if you know that Friday nights or Wednesday mornings are time when you’re “allowed” to be interrupted, you won’t feel quite so bad about ignoring interruptions Friday afternoon or Tuesday evening.

  • Competition: Finding out that someone is working on a project similar to yours, or seeing someone else’s work in the marketplace, can be daunting. Writers, musicians, and other artists often find someone else’s work so good that they feel they can’t possibly do better, so they give up.

    Remember that competition is healthy — it shows that there’s an active niche developed around your specialty. Remember, too, that the main thing that your audience, market, or employer wants is you — your personal take on a problem, your personal voice, your personal perspective — and nobody else can offer quite what you do. Consider the iPod — there is lots of competition, and many of the competitors are, feature for feature, better than iPods, but people respond to the particular Apple style, the vision Apple has brought to its products. At the same time, the existence of the iPod hasn’t stopped other companies from producing players — several companies are doing quite well in the particular niche they’ve carved out for themselves.

    Figure out what your particular niche is, what differentiates your project from whatever anyone else is doing, and refocus your efforts to develop those specific qualities.

  • Criticism: Criticism from others, especially those whose opinions we value, can immediately sap our energy and desire to continue. Some people offer constructive criticism, which can actually help if we know they have our best interests at heart. But others offer destructive criticism in the guise of helpfulness — even people close to us might want to protect us from the disappointment they are afraid you’ll feel when you fail. Explain to these people that they aren’t showing much faith in you and that even though they might have the best intentions, they are actually not helping. Try redirecting them, asking “What do you think I need to do to make this succeed?”

    Then there’s the people who offer negative criticism for the sheer pleasure of it, because they literally don’t want to see you succeed. They might be jealous, the might be projecting their own lack of confidence in themselves, or they might simply enjoy undermining people. Not only can you safely ignore their criticism (which is really about them, not you or your work) but you can and even must ignore these people. Get them out of your life, pronto! If this is impossible — maybe you’re related to them or they’re co-workers — you have to take every effort to minimize the extent of your relationship. First and foremost, don’t share your work with them — even when it’s done. They’re not going to suddenly “see the light” when you’re rich and famous, so don’t even try.

Internal Sticking Points

The sticking points that rise up out of our own thoughts and feelings are in many ways even more insidious and dangerous than the external sticking points listed above. They are, after all, part of who you are, and getting around them takes a concerted effort to change something about yourself. Or, at times, to change something about the project — which is often just as hard!

  • Ethical objections: Sometimes we find ourself working on a project that suddenly starts setting off morality alarms. For example, you may need a piece of information about someone that you discover isn’t public, or someone might question the effect that your project’s outcome might have on some group of people. This happened to me when I was doing fieldwork; I had promised something to someone and another anthropologist suggested that following through on my promise might really hurt the community I was studying.

    I would never advise setting these feelings to the side and plowing through anyway. Even if you’re successful, you’ll regret it later — and chances are, the negative effects will be realized and people will be hurt. What you need, though, before continuing, is some perspective. Here’s some things to do:

    • Ask for others’ advice. Explain your situation to two or three people whose opinion you value and ask what they would do.
    • Do some research. Go to the library and look through the sections on ethics and also on the field your project is in. Many professions have a Code of Ethics that will offer some guidelines for dealing with potentially difficult situations.
    • Ask the people it effects. If possible, discuss your concerns with the people who might be affected by it. Lay out everything you think is possible, and how likely you think it is that it will happen.
    • Look inside. Take a good, hard look at your situation. Write down your worries and how you feel about them.

    There is never a pat answer to ethical dilemmas (if there were, they wouldn’t be dilemmas!); ethics is a set of processes and reflections, rather than a set of rules. You may decide to go through with your project “as is”; if you do, you’ll do so knowing that you’ve considered all the angles and that morality is unlikely to rise up as a sticking point. Or you may decide to make changes in your plan. In some instances, you might scrap the project altogether, but you’ll do so knowing there’s a good reason to quit — it won’t be something you’ll regret.

  • Lack of vision: It may be that you simply can’t imagine finishing, or you can’t imagine yourself having finished. As you get closer to the end of your project, you unconsciously start holding onto it, checking and re-checking everything, revising and re-planning, even going back to the drawing board to start over.

    If you find yourself in this pattern, first of all pay attention. Realizing we’re sabotaging ourself is often a powerful enough experience to get us going again. Second, take a few minutes to remind yourself of your goals and of the positive changes you expect to occur when you’re done. Third, write down a paragraph or two, or even just a list, of how you see your life when you’re done. Write a vision statement if you haven’t ever before. If applicable, write down how the people closest to you will be affected, too — knowing others hold a stake in your success can often motivate us profoundly.

  • Self-criticism: Unlike the negativity of others, there’s no door we can close to get away from the negativity in ourselves, the Inner Critic who tells us our work is not good enough or important enough to waste time on, that we lack the skills and talent to pull it off, and even that we don’t deserve to succeed.

    In some extreme cases, therapy is called for, but everyone faces an Inner Critic, even the most prolific creators. It’s sounds glib to say “just ignore it”, and yet, ultimately that’s what you have to do. Just like the criticism of others, you have to ask your Inner Critic to either help you figure out how to succeed or tell it to go away.

    One thing that helps is telling yourself that it’s fine to suck — that, in fact, lots of incredible creators, even geniuses, felt their own work sucked. Give yourself permission to suck, and the Inner Critic sort of runs out of steam — what’s it going to say, “You don’t suck good enough?”

  • Lack of planning: A lot of time we’re stuck because we haven’t planned our way through all the steps and we don’t know what to do next, or the plan we originally wrote (or otherwise conceived) doesn’t seem to apply. At times, you need to re-plan — to reconceive your project according to what you know now, not what you knew when you started. I often tell students that the best time to start their big papers is write after they’ve finished — you learn so much doing a big project that you always know much more when its done than when you began.
  • Priorities: If you suffer from several of these internal and external sticking points — you don’t have time, your family and friends aren’t supportive, you don’t know what to do next, etc. — it may well be that your project is not a very high priority for you. IF you find yourself spinning your wheels for more than a few days, you’d better start asking yourself if you really want this — not just “someday”, but right now. Because you’re spending not just time but energy worrying about why you aren’t getting done.

    Now, something can be your very last priority and not be a waste of time. If you’d like to write a novel but you have a family to feed and care for, writing that novel probably shouldn’t be at the top of your list! But know and accept that it’s a low priority and that other things have to come first, so you don’t feel guilty about not working on it — and so that, when you do work on it, you know that you can devote yourself wholly to it because everything else important is taken care of.

These are just a few of the things that stop us in our tracks. Each of us faces a slightly different struggle depending on the nature of our tasks and the nature of ourselves. What’s your sticking point?

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8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

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8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

How would you feel if you were sharing a personal story and noticed that the person to whom you were speaking wasn’t really listening? You probably wouldn’t be too thrilled.

Unfortunately, that is the case for many people. Most individuals are not good listeners. They are good pretenders. The thing is, true listening requires work—more work than people are willing to invest. Quality conversation is about “give and take.” Most people, however, want to just give—their words, that is. Being on the receiving end as the listener may seem boring, but it’s essential.

When you are attending to someone and paying attention to what they’re saying, it’s a sign of caring and respect. The hitch is that attending requires an act of will, which sometimes goes against what our minds naturally do—roaming around aimlessly and thinking about whatnot, instead of listening—the greatest act of thoughtfulness.

Without active listening, people often feel unheard and unacknowledged. That’s why it’s important for everyone to learn how to be a better listener.

What Makes People Poor Listeners?

Good listening skills can be learned, but first, let’s take a look at some of the things that you might be doing that makes you a poor listener.

1. You Want to Talk to Yourself

Well, who doesn’t? We all have something to say, right? But when you are looking at someone pretending to be listening while, all along, they’re mentally planning all the amazing things they’re going to say, it is a disservice to the speaker.

Yes, maybe what the other person is saying is not the most exciting thing in the world. Still, they deserve to be heard. You always have the ability to steer the conversation in another direction by asking questions.

It’s okay to want to talk. It’s normal, even. Keep in mind, however, that when your turn does come around, you’ll want someone to listen to you.

2. You Disagree With What Is Being Said

This is another thing that makes you an inadequate listener—hearing something with which you disagree with and immediately tuning out. Then, you lie in wait so you can tell the speaker how wrong they are. You’re eager to make your point and prove the speaker wrong. You think that once you speak your “truth,” others will know how mistaken the speaker is, thank you for setting them straight, and encourage you to elaborate on what you have to say. Dream on.

Disagreeing with your speaker, however frustrating that might be, is no reason to tune them out and ready yourself to spew your staggering rebuttal. By listening, you might actually glean an interesting nugget of information that you were previously unaware of.

3. You Are Doing Five Other Things While You’re “Listening”

It is impossible to listen to someone while you’re texting, reading, playing Sudoku, etc. But people do it all the time—I know I have.

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I’ve actually tried to balance my checkbook while pretending to listen to the person on the other line. It didn’t work. I had to keep asking, “what did you say?” I can only admit this now because I rarely do it anymore. With work, I’ve succeeded in becoming a better listener. It takes a great deal of concentration, but it’s certainly worth it.

If you’re truly going to listen, then you must: listen! M. Scott Peck, M.D., in his book The Road Less Travel, says, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” If you are too busy to actually listen, let the speaker know, and arrange for another time to talk. It’s simple as that!

4. You Appoint Yourself as Judge

While you’re “listening,” you decide that the speaker doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As the “expert,” you know more. So, what’s the point of even listening?

To you, the only sound you hear once you decide they’re wrong is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!” But before you bang that gavel, just know you may not have all the necessary information. To do that, you’d have to really listen, wouldn’t you? Also, make sure you don’t judge someone by their accent, the way they sound, or the structure of their sentences.

My dad is nearly 91. His English is sometimes a little broken and hard to understand. People wrongly assume that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—they’re quite mistaken. My dad is a highly intelligent man who has English as his second language. He knows what he’s saying and understands the language perfectly.

Keep that in mind when listening to a foreigner, or someone who perhaps has a difficult time putting their thoughts into words.

Now, you know some of the things that make for an inferior listener. If none of the items above resonate with you, great! You’re a better listener than most.

How To Be a Better Listener

For conversation’s sake, though, let’s just say that maybe you need some work in the listening department, and after reading this article, you make the decision to improve. What, then, are some of the things you need to do to make that happen? How can you be a better listener?

1. Pay Attention

A good listener is attentive. They’re not looking at their watch, phone, or thinking about their dinner plans. They’re focused and paying attention to what the other person is saying. This is called active listening.

According to Skills You Need, “active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening—otherwise, the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.”[1]

As I mentioned, it’s normal for the mind to wander. We’re human, after all. But a good listener will rein those thoughts back in as soon as they notice their attention waning.

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I want to note here that you can also “listen” to bodily cues. You can assume that if someone keeps looking at their watch or over their shoulder, their focus isn’t on the conversation. The key is to just pay attention.

2. Use Positive Body Language

You can infer a lot from a person’s body language. Are they interested, bored, or anxious?

A good listener’s body language is open. They lean forward and express curiosity in what is being said. Their facial expression is either smiling, showing concern, conveying empathy, etc. They’re letting the speaker know that they’re being heard.

People say things for a reason—they want some type of feedback. For example, you tell your spouse, “I had a really rough day!” and your husband continues to check his newsfeed while nodding his head. Not a good response.

But what if your husband were to look up with questioning eyes, put his phone down, and say, “Oh, no. What happened?” How would feel, then? The answer is obvious.

According to Alan Gurney,[2]

“An active listener pays full attention to the speaker and ensures they understand the information being delivered. You can’t be distracted by an incoming call or a Facebook status update. You have to be present and in the moment.

Body language is an important tool to ensure you do this. The correct body language makes you a better active listener and therefore more ‘open’ and receptive to what the speaker is saying. At the same time, it indicates that you are listening to them.”

3. Avoid Interrupting the Speaker

I am certain you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a sentence only to see the other person holding up a finger or their mouth open, ready to step into your unfinished verbiage. It’s rude and causes anxiety. You would, more than likely, feel a need to rush what you’re saying just to finish your sentence.

Interrupting is a sign of disrespect. It is essentially saying, “what I have to say is much more important than what you’re saying.” When you interrupt the speaker, they feel frustrated, hurried, and unimportant.

Interrupting a speaker to agree, disagree, argue, etc., causes the speaker to lose track of what they are saying. It’s extremely frustrating. Whatever you have to say can wait until the other person is done.

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Be polite and wait your turn!

4. Ask Questions

Asking questions is one of the best ways to show you’re interested. If someone is telling you about their ski trip to Mammoth, don’t respond with, “that’s nice.” That would show a lack of interest and disrespect. Instead, you can ask, “how long have you been skiing?” “Did you find it difficult to learn?” “What was your favorite part of the trip?” etc. The person will think highly of you and consider you a great conversationalist just by you asking a few questions.

5. Just Listen

This may seem counterintuitive. When you’re conversing with someone, it’s usually back and forth. On occasion, all that is required of you is to listen, smile, or nod your head, and your speaker will feel like they’re really being heard and understood.

I once sat with a client for 45 minutes without saying a word. She came into my office in distress. I had her sit down, and then she started crying softly. I sat with her—that’s all I did. At the end of the session, she stood, told me she felt much better, and then left.

I have to admit that 45 minutes without saying a word was tough. But she didn’t need me to say anything. She needed a safe space in which she could emote without interruption, judgment, or me trying to “fix” something.

6. Remember and Follow Up

Part of being a great listener is remembering what the speaker has said to you, then following up with them.

For example, in a recent conversation you had with your co-worker Jacob, he told you that his wife had gotten a promotion and that they were contemplating moving to New York. The next time you run into Jacob, you may want to say, “Hey, Jacob! Whatever happened with your wife’s promotion?” At this point, Jacob will know you really heard what he said and that you’re interested to see how things turned out. What a gift!

According to new research, “people who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, may become better managers, land better jobs, and even win second dates.”[3]

It’s so simple to show you care. Just remember a few facts and follow up on them. If you do this regularly, you will make more friends.

7. Keep Confidential Information Confidential

If you really want to be a better listener, listen with care. If what you’re hearing is confidential, keep it that way, no matter how tempting it might be to tell someone else, especially if you have friends in common. Being a good listener means being trustworthy and sensitive with shared information.

Whatever is told to you in confidence is not to be revealed. Assure your speaker that their information is safe with you. They will feel relieved that they have someone with whom they can share their burden without fear of it getting out.

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Keeping someone’s confidence helps to deepen your relationship. Also, “one of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it helps to build and develop trust. It potentially allows for the free flow of information between the client and worker and acknowledges that a client’s personal life and all the issues and problems that they have belong to them.”[4]

Be like a therapist: listen and withhold judgment.

NOTE: I must add here that while therapists keep everything in a session confidential, there are exceptions:

  1. If the client may be an immediate danger to himself or others.
  2. If the client is endangering a population that cannot protect itself, such as in the case of a child or elder abuse.

8. Maintain Eye Contact

When someone is talking, they are usually saying something they consider meaningful. They don’t want their listener reading a text, looking at their fingernails, or bending down to pet a pooch on the street. A speaker wants all eyes on them. It lets them know that what they’re saying has value.

Eye contact is very powerful. It can relay many things without anything being said. Currently, it’s more important than ever with the Covid-19 Pandemic. People can’t see your whole face, but they can definitely read your eyes.

By eye contact, I don’t mean a hard, creepy stare—just a gaze in the speaker’s direction will do. Make it a point the next time you’re in a conversation to maintain eye contact with your speaker. Avoid the temptation to look anywhere but at their face. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’re not interested in what they’re talking about. But as I said, you can redirect the conversation in a different direction or just let the person know you’ve got to get going.

Final Thoughts

Listening attentively will add to your connection with anyone in your life. Now, more than ever, when people are so disconnected due to smartphones and social media, listening skills are critical.

You can build better, more honest, and deeper relationships by simply being there, paying attention, and asking questions that make the speaker feel like what they have to say matters.

And isn’t that a great goal? To make people feel as if they matter? So, go out and start honing those listening skills. You’ve got two great ears. Now use them!

More Tips on How to Be a Better Listener

Featured photo credit: Joshua Rodriguez via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Skills You Need: Active Listening
[2] Filtered: Body language for active listening
[3] Forbes: People Will Like You More If You Start Asking Follow-up Questions
[4] TAFE NSW Sydney eLearning Moodle: Confidentiality

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