I’ve finally owned one of my gifts: listening.
In a recent call with The Good Men Project, we discussed the concept of listening. I realized, when talking about something so familiar to most of us, that listening is an empathic act of hearing. It’s as much about giving attention to a sound as it is feeling empathy for what someone is saying. Listening is an act of staying quiet and alert while someone else is speaking.
Why is it so difficult to listen? Why is it hard for others to listen to us?
One of the elusive features of listening is devoting energy to another person. So often, we are planning and plotting our next brilliant statement that we end up missing much of what’s being said. We think we need to be insightful, brilliant, interesting or amusing — so we practice clever quips in our minds, and deliver them without really attuning to the other person in the conversation.
The inverse of listening is talking. When we speak to a friend, we don’t want to take up too much time or be burdensome, so we leave out parts of a story or fast forward through details. We focus on the main points but don’t slow down to highlight nuance, and the listeners are only given a small window of opportunity to listen.
I’ve noticed with a few important people in my life that a detriment to listening is deep care. Of course, this is paradoxical: the people who care the most sometimes have the biggest listening obstacles to overcome. When we love or care about people so deeply, we sometimes can’t actually hear what they’re saying. We may develop an unintentional bias and don’t hear details. We have a problem remaining open to possibility because we have a stake in someone’s life or outcomes. We want the best for someone and offer advice before listening (“break up with your derelict boyfriend,” “don’t quit your job”). Because they want the best for you, they may know better. They have our lives planned out for us: it’s so easy, just follow these five simple steps. But, they get ahead of us and haven’t actually listened.
Sometimes in a conversation, there’s a battle for who gets to talk more, and how the other person will listen. There may be interruptions, changing of conversation, tangents — all normal parts of communication. But does each person feel heard?
But if people are at ease and conversation flows, they each get an opportunity to be heard. It feels like each talker’s voice matters and each listener has a chance to respond appropriately. Even if there may be a disagreement, each person feels heard and their outlook is valid. The people bring empathy, or their hearts, to the conversation. They see what it’s like to experience life from the other person’s perspective.
So, how can you improve your listening skills?
Pay attention and track the conversation.
Imagine what the other person is experiencing.
Don’t rush to give an opinion or feedback.
Ask what they need, rather than assuming you know.
I’d love to hear how you have worked on your listening skills. Let me know!