Do you think you're a good listener? Do you feel really listened to most of the time? I've been teaching extraordinary listening for 25 years and I still fall down on the job. And I've noticed that listening poorly has become pandemic. The problem is that people have forgotten how to really listen. Our survival in ancient times depended on listening to survive, so all senses were acute. Nowadays, we've created a shield around us so we don't have to sense much anymore. With so much noise pollution, we've become numb. With virtual communication, we don't have to listen. Our eardrums may just become obsolete from lack of use.
If listening is taken for granted, how important could it be? The experience of listening poorly and listening well is the difference between eating the white pith of an orange and really savoring the burst of the sweet juice. When you're not listening well, you're not fully present. You miss what's behind the words, the deep truth that's coming from a person. It's not about hearing the words spoken per se; it's about connecting with the heart.
Listening like it matters is especially important with kids. Adults rarely listen to kids, ask them what they think about things or truly engage them. We fail to do this because we're so wrapped up in training them and taking care of their needs. We create generations of children that aren't listened to. This habit gets passed on from generation to generation and is the source of all kinds of societal ills that change when we are deeply listened to at a young age. When he was a small child, my nephew would put his hands on your cheeks, turn your face to him and say "You're not listening to me!" Wouldn't it just be great if everyone did that?
We don't listen much to adults, either. In many families, there is someone who talks on and on because no one listens to them. They don't listen to themselves, either. When I was trying to find a copyright attorney for CTI, I went to five people before anyone asked me one question about my needs, concerns, budget or even my business. They just talked at me.
There seem to be two types of failing to listen well: First, in times of conflict where there is tension or disagreement. Personally, there are so many times when my husband Henry and I are arguing and I realize that we have not been listening to each other. We're both being "right" about our point of view. Usually, after the third time I've repeated something, it dawns on me that listening isn't present. When people know they are not being really listened to, they tend to repeat themselves. So one us (usually Henry) starts to listen to the other person's experience. Intimacy deepens. The space relaxes. We get connected again.
It's important to remember that listening well isn't about agreeing. By really listening to the other, you're not voting in favor of their ideas. It's just listening and understanding the other person's experience. This offers the opportunity to "take a space ship" to another person's world... to really inhabit their experience.
Deeper understanding and connection are almost always an outcome, along with an opening for conversation that is more creative and that can result in a "third way" -- not your way or my way, but a magical and creative solution that is even better than one of those things.
We are trained to listen to the content or for the problem that needs to be solved rather than to the person speaking, so communication doesn't really happen. We listen for information and then when we think we've got it, we stop listening. But the other person is attempting to connect with us, not just convey info. Or we listen just enough so we can simultaneously formulate the response we want to make. That doesn't help us increase intimacy or allow us to truly utilize and create from each other.
Secondly, there's the day-to-day numbness that comes from being preoccupied with the task and forgetting about the people. This happens all the time in the business world, in offices and boardrooms, even in my own workshops. I have to remind myself sometimes that people come first, tasks second.
So, the first kind of listening poorly (in times of conflict) is actually an opportunity to wake up and come out of the daze of the second kind (in numbness) because conflict is so stimulating and it really gets our attention. What if every time we found ourselves in conflict or tension, we realized we had stopped listening and started doing so consciously? We need to learn to listen to the person, not the problem. Sometimes action needs to be taken, but mostly it's just about understanding each other. I think that level of understanding would change the world.
How to listen well:
1. Let go of multitasking. Take a breath and put your attention over on the person speaking. Let them be the most important thing in the world for bit.
2. Let go of judgment and your need to problem-solve. Put your attention on the person speaking, not the problem, and just listen.
3. If you are having trouble concentrating, repeat the words the other person is saying silently in your mind as they are saying them. This really helps to bring focus.
4. It's not just about listening with your ears. We need to listen for the space between words. We teach this to the coaches we train. Think of an antenna pointed towards another human. The heart, spirit and mind are listening too. Not just to the words coming across. But listening into them.
5. Ask curious, open-ended questions. What about that was important to you? What's next? Learn to use powerful questions to facilitate dialogue, thinking and listening.
6. When they're done, say "Thanks for sharing that with me."
Deep listening is transformative for both parties. It connects us. We feel really held and known, seen, we feel that we belong, can breathe, relax. It doesn't matter what someone says back to me, if I'm upset, if they listen to me well, it makes me feel like what I say matters, and that means the world to me. Listening well is about being in a good relationship with each other. You can meditate for ten years or you can just listen to the people in your life.
Karen Kimsey-House, MFA, CPCC, MCC, is the Co-founder and CEO of The Coaches Training Institute (CTI), the oldest and largest in-person coach training school in the world, and the co-author of the best-selling Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives. Karen was one of four pioneers of the coaching profession, and in honor of its 20th birthday this year, she is sharing her insights about human transformation in a ten-part HuffPost series,"Disrupt Your Life in a Good Way".