A great trap of the human ego is to substitute ignorance and overconfidence for an opportunity to learn. I’ve watched people fall into this trap when I try to engage with them, and I’ve seen myself fall into the trap as well.
One afternoon I was in a crowded store. I pushed my earplugs deeper into my ears so that I could avoid confusion, and leaned forward as I strained to understand the saleswoman’s voice over both the loud music and the distortion my earplugs created.
“My wife has a hearing disability, she—” my husband started to offer an explanation of my hyperacusis and auditory processing disorder, but the saleswoman cut him off.
“Oh, I totally understand. I was a schoolteacher for years before this. I had a couple of deaf kids in my classroom,” she nodded and smiled. I stared hard at her lips in an effort to augment my understanding. Sensory overload had rendered me nonverbal.
“No, what my wife has is—” he tried again.
“Don’t worry! I totally get it!” the saleswoman exclaimed.
About a year later I went to a yoga studio. My arrival at the class was a very big deal. I hadn’t done any yoga since the brain changes I’d had in 2014 had exacerbated both my auditory and visual challenges. I thought I’d open the conversation about my limitations by referring to one of my better known diagnoses.
“Hi. This is my first time here, and I just wanted to make you aware that I have some disabilities. Some of my mannerisms might seem a bit odd. You see, I’m autistic and—“
“Oh, don’t you worry! I’ve studied autism. I completely get it. No worries about how you come off!”
I become disoriented when people interrupt me, so I stopped speaking. I’d wanted to explain that I need to rely quite a bit on visual cues, but that those could fail me too. I’d wanted to say that I might learn a bit more slowly than the rest of the students, but if I struggled it would be best to let me continue my efforts to imitate the poses in silence and by demonstration, rather than verbally coaching me. But I closed my mouth and didn’t say anything.
It can be hard to resist the temptation to believe we fully understand the experiences of another human being, simply because we have a passing familiarity with the first words they use to describe their journey through this life. But overconfidence in the breadth of our empathy can be a big obstacle to true understanding.
Someone once told me they could complete the sentences of others with near perfect accuracy. They substituted a belief in their possession of a communication superpower for authentic listening. This person then proceeded to transform most of what I said to them into something vastly different from intended meaning. I’d rarely encountered such a deep and profound misunderstanding.
Language can put us at a disadvantage. Humans have to agree to at least a working definition of words to get anything done. But it’s unwise to rely on our previous relationships of a few words when we’re trying to get to know another human being. It’s a far better idea to hear one another out.
Even when discussing non-human topics, we can miss a lot by glossing over details offered to us. You may tell me you have a painting of a black and white dog. If I become eager and cut you off, proclaiming that I too have a watercolor of a husky racing across the Arctic, I may miss the beauty of your story about the oil painting of your grandmother’s Boston Terrier. A dog that saved her life by waking her when her house caught fire.
Listen. Learn. Understand. You never know what someone might teach you.