Soft & Hard

I like to talk. I like to talk about myself, I mean, a lot. In conversation I often find myself listening to the other person while simultaneously talking to myself privately, waiting for my opportunity to share. Typically, that share is nothing more than a “one up” of the other person. It is simply my ego feeding itself. I don’t do it intentionally. It was a skill that was built over time. In my personal journey of growth, one of the areas I made a committed choice to change was actively listening. My goal was to listen to others, without talking to myself about what I wanted to say and respond genuinely to the speaker. Ironically, having to remind myself to listen while a person was speaking almost seemed to defeat the purpose. I got better at it. I practiced more and eventually, I found myself intently listening.

This feeling was very familiar. I utilize the skill when learning something new, in school, sports, fitness, or anything I was interested in learning. I was good at it too, but only when it came to learn something of interest. It forced me to evaluate why I even talk with people in the first place! It’s to learn something about the other person. After I learned about the other person, I could respond in a manner that was more appropriate and better served them as opposed to serving my ego. I gained a better perspective on emotion and impact. I learned that not everyone is looking for advice, but some simply want an ear to borrow. I learned that when you actively listen, you engage the speaker and they will share all of themselves. The greatest thing learned though, was that my active listening ended up serving me as well, even though it was not intended to do so. Here is where I learned the lesson of hard versus soft.

Every night, my wife and I put our three boys down for bed around 8:30 p.m. and we head out back to sit on the porch and just chat. Often, this meant me blabbering on about whatever multiple, incoherent tangents that were raddling in my head at that moment. If drinks or herbs were added to the mix, well, those thoughts in my head seemed to pour out onto my wife’s lap like a leaky pitcher of Sangria. As I practiced my listening skills, I wanted to give this effort to the most important place in my life, my home, with my family. So, I sat and listened. I heard about her day, her clients, her approach with working with new clients, and so on. I found myself stopping any ego driven responses. I found myself looking at her in amazement and seeing the magic in the beauty services she provides for many women.

Now, actively listening doesn’t mean I never say anything about myself or never respond. Rather, I respond in accordance with the moment. By being present in that moment, I am more aligned with the emotional response that is of greater service for the person sharing with me. As I listened to my wife, the concept of soft and hard jumped out at me. Get your heads out of the gutter, that is not where I am going. My wife has a hard side. I have seen it and so have the boys! Yet, the dominant texture of life she gives off to others is one that is soft and gentle. Everyone who encounters my wife outside of our home gets the soft and gentle. She exudes kindness, love, and warmth. On the other hand, I grew up where being “hard” was mandatory to survive. I am soft and gentle at home, with my children, with my wife, with my family and with people I felt had a bad run of luck, like those who were homeless. They got the warmth and the love. Everyone else got the strength, the hard exterior, and the seemingly cold shoulder. I was never trying to be mean, simply protecting myself and being cautious. It causes problems. As a Black male, bald head, muscular build, and tattoos up and down my arms, people are already hesitant to say hello, let alone spark up a conversation.

I made the decision to test out softening the exterior. My wife’s interactions in her day seemed so much more pleasant than mine. I was nice to people I knew or had a history with but if you didn’t fall into that category, well, you were shit out of luck! Really, I was the one shit out of luck. Think of all the opportunities I missed. Think of all the people I never got to speak with or all the times I could have helped others in any given situation, but they were too scared, intimidated, or didn’t want to take the time to break down that stone barrier. I also didn’t want to take the time to stop fortifying that barrier. I missed out on a lot.

Softening took less effort than I expected. I simply smile more, talk less, listen intently, and respond appropriately because I am present in the moment. I liked this feeling of not having to brace for impact all day long. Consequently, more opportunities presented themselves. More conversations were sparked, and more people smiled at me. Others began to see the true me that my family sees at home every day and they liked that side of me. So do I!

In embracing that softer side and showing it to others, it produced something unexpected. It garnered even more strength than being hard. To exude warmth, love, and softness is a lot harder to do than being hard. It requires trust in humanity. It requires caring for others and genuinely hearing their souls speak. It requires you to remove your wall. Being hard is quite simple. You put on this exterior that drives other away. This could be as simple as your clothing, your posture, the lack of a smile, or walking with your head down refusing to acknowledge the presence of other human beings. It requires being alone and being alone is easy to accomplish but hard to deal with when you’re not in good company. By sharing that softer side, it is simply a matter of getting comfortable allowing others to see that side of you. As you do this, people will be receptive, and it starts to become easier to do each time you encounter anyone.

If you have ever been considered intimidating or people tend to avoid you because of the impression of a cold exterior, here are 5 ways you can soften that tough exterior.

1. Smile

Simply smiling at others, especially strangers, will help you see that no one is out to get you. Everyone wants to feel loved, comforted, and safe. Smiling is a sure-fire way to alleviate the tension and make people feel comfortable.

2. Say Hello

Don’t be afraid to say hello or assume an ulterior motive when others say hi to you. This happens every day. As you walk down the street and another human being passes you in the opposite direction, say hello, good morning, or give a head nod with a smile. When standing in line at the store and approaching the cashier, say hi. Hell, say anything. Acknowledge the fact that there is another person in your presence. If you want to take it a step further, give them a compliment. However, do not lie. Don’t say you like their shirt when you think it is hideous. Find something you do like about their presence, appearance, clothing, smile, or anything else. You can start with people you know before moving to strangers. If you can’t find one thing to compliment, we have a bigger issue to tackle.

3. Actively Listen

Stop talking to yourself while others are speaking. Stop waiting for your turn to say something. Often, we are running through our own thoughts about how we wish to respond to someone. Instead, take the time to listen to what they are saying. Hear them completely. It is okay to pause after they are done speaking to think about how you want to respond. In conversation, no one is in a rush. Take your time and tune in.

4. Ask the question(s)

If you find yourself having a hard-exterior response or reaction, ask yourself a few questions; What am I afraid of? Why do I need to be tough in this moment? What would happen if I softened my approach? What opportunity could I be missing out on by not letting this person in?

5. Speak with a stranger

For those who are willing, able, and committed to this type of change, take time every day to speak with a stranger. Start with a smile, say hello, and ask them their name. If you are worried that they will think you are weird, you can address that upfront. Tell them you are trying to break out of your hard shell and are practicing the act of sharing with others. Only an asshole would walk away, laugh, or belittle you. The good thing is, you don’t want that person in your life, not even for a second. Now, make sure you do not interrupt someone who seems to be in a rush or is wearing headphones. They are sharing with the world, they do not want to be bothered.

In trying these five tips, you may find yourself being rejected at times. That is okay! That is their issue, their projection of negativity, not yours. If someone happens to reject that softer side, you still have the hard side to turn. However, what I found was even if the soft side was rejected, a smile and walking away moved me past that moment and that person, allowing me to control my emotional state. For this realization I am grateful. For sharing my softer side, I am thankful. For those of you whom this seems to sound weak, don’t forget, I am still a warrior, just not willing to fight so easily.