staying receptiveI was at a friend’s birthday party last Friday night and I had an interesting conversation. Of course, nearly every conversation will be interesting once someone asks me the inevitable question, “So what do you do?” “Oh, I’m a writer and a speaker.” “Well, what do you write and speak about?” “Eating disorders. And mentoring.”

That pretty much does it – from there I can sit back and listen. The person usually either chooses to regale me with their “best hits” collection of eating disorder jokes (“I have an eating disorder, too – I eat too much hahahaha!”) or to share their mentoring stories with me. This particular woman shared her story of being mentored while in graduate school. She was learning how to debate and she was quite good at it, save for one notable flaw. She couldn’t seem to hide her opinions during a conversation. While my brother was heavily into debate in high school, I never did get involved in it, so I didn’t realize that part of being a good debater is being able to remain open to hearing the other side’s argument.

Apparently, the point of staying receptive and open is not to see if the other side can change your opinion, but so that you can have more information you can use to win the debate. If you don’t fully take in and comprehend your opponent’s reasoning and point of view, you may miss valuable clues that can give you the advantage later on in the debate. Also, people tend to share more when they feel heard, so maintaining a neutral expression and open body language can get your opponent to open up and share more.

This woman told me that her mentor sat her down and told her that in every way, from her stance to her body language to the expression on her face and the look in her eyes, she made it clear that she was not open to even listening to other debater’s perspective. He told her, “You are just having a conversation. It is okay to hear the other person’s point of view.”

I was powerfully affected by this story. While I like to flatter myself that I am an open-minded and objective person, the truth is that I have my own opinions and perspectives that are fairly set in stone – just like most people, I suspect. For instance, when someone decides to hold forth on eating disorders and is clearly misinformed, it is all I can do to let them finish before I jump in to correct them. Or when someone starts ranting about a political perspective I do not share, I have a hard time staying put and hearing them out. I may not need to work on this, but I want to.

I want to work on this because allowing other people to share their thoughts and opinions takes courage. I have to drop my guard for a moment and let a different viewpoint in. It also takes humility and the willingness to admit that I just may learn something new and valuable, even if it means I have to admit that my own cherished viewpoint is now seen to be shortsighted or misinformed. Most of all, I want to work on this because when I go into “defensive mode” in my body, emotions and mind, the message that gets transmitted from me to me is that all is not well and I am not okay.

As my new debater friend’s mentor said, “You are just having a conversation. It is okay to hear the other person’s point of view.” It is okay – the worst that can happen is that I will still disagree, but the best that can happen is that I will gain valuable new insight into something that matters deeply to me!”

Today’s Takeaway: How receptive are you when someone shares an opinion or viewpoint with you that you do not share? If you, like me, tend to struggle to stay objective when this happens, how might it affect your interactions with others, whether at work, socially or at home, if you cultivate a greater ability to suspend judgment for a moment or two to hear them out?

Party conversation photo available from Shutterstock