Near Enemies and The Mouth

Both Brené Brown and Louise Penny highlight the idea of near enemies. These are emotions that masquerade as positive emotions but are not. So they fool us, and they fool those around us. Pity is the near enemy of compassion. Attachment is the near enemy of love. Indifference is the near enemy of equanimity. To find out more . . .

Near Enemies

The idea of behaviors that we mistake for the better ones shows up in a very particular aspect of the listening loop as well—responses we think show listening but actually indicate the opposite.

I suggest that what we compose while someone else is speaking is a very powerful indicator of what we attend, and what we attend is the most powerful marker for listening. More so than our body language, eye contact, all those things we learn to do in the first grade so that the teacher thinks we’re paying attention. Teachers always look for the goof-off to call on. Trust me. I know on both ends.

The mouth? In my many conversations with Colin Smith, we finally decided that he’s the listener and I’m the talker. The Ears and the Mouth. Not exclusive categories either. I came to my love affair with words from my introversion and shyness, and from a third part of my makeup as well. Introversion has a cool definition—prefers a minimally stimulating social environment. Shyness has to do with fear of judgment, and awkwardness around others. The third? I also have a stutter. That makes speaking both perilous and precious. None of these, btw, do I see as afflictions, although that has not always been the case.

So here is my little treatise on near enemies when it comes to talking. And what to do about them.

My surgery is my first near enemy for listening. Say you’re having a conversation and mention you need knee surgery. The response? “Oh, I had knee surgery two years ago. Both knees, actually. You see, I’d been . . .” and so forth. The double knee-ite is leapfrogging your experience as a way to get to theirs. Listening for entry, not for interest. Waiting for their chance, as my stepson would say, with “bait-like breath.”

Helpful judgment is also on the hit parade of near enemies for listening. You’ve mentioned your cat’s situation and here they go: “So you know what you ought to do? My cat had the same problem before we put her down, poor thing, and the only thing that worked was when my husband held her and I . . . .” This one is both my surgery and helpful judgment. Unless someone asks for a solution, taking the conversation there shows very clearly you were already moving ahead to your response instead of listening.

D4B – Drain for the Brain. As if some sort of backed-up lake of old dishwater has been building up and the dam finally breaks. Tsunami. Drowning in the Deep End. Awash.

Words reflect who we are. They also create who we are. We’re not just talking to them, we’re talking to us. If we can’t remember what we just said, they can’t either. Words are poetry, not dissertations. Please. Each is precious, and they lose that distinction when they struggle in a crowd.

When we take the time to listen, and show the love to shape and refine, boil down for the sake of their understanding, we pay homage to their experience. The subtle benefit of that is that composing to create understanding also increases our tendency to better understand.

When you respond, use the rhythm of reflect and investigate. You can only do that if you attend absolutely to what the other offers. Try this for an experiment. Talk with others about a story rather than an issue, e.g. What might it be like growing up in the past couple of years? While the other talks, absolutely avoid (dis)agreement and solutions. Your goal is to follow them where they lead, to explore differences and alignment with equal value. Understanding and agreement are distinct.

Two final thoughts. Speak only enough that you could repeat what you just said. Verbatim. Try that as a new goal. You’ll be amazed at how much wiser you are.

And remember W.A.I.T. and W.A.I.S.T. —

Why am I talking?

Why am I still talking?


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. Love this, Mac! We have a saying in our home, “Same action, different core” which aligns with this idea of Near Enemies. What I’ve discovered about myself over the years is what appeared to be loving actions from the outside, were actually motivated by deep fears of being alone from the inside. I wanted/needed everyone to like me so I wouldn’t be alone. The awareness that our need to immediately interact, solve, relate to what another person is sharing could partly be motivated by a similar fear and the need to be accepted – related to our primal fear of being rejected by our tribe and left alone to die. I also agree that many respond simply to hear themselves talk, to affirm their own experiences, insights and wisdom. Oh, yes, that’s also something I can relate to … which was cored in my lack of trust, within myself and with others – believing they couldn’t discover their own answers and I, somehow, could save them. There are so many underlying motivating energies for our lack of listening, to ourselves and others. Thank you for reminding us the value of listening between the words to feel the space that unifies us all as One.