THE BLOG
11/12/2014 10:33 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2015

Listen Like You Mean It

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It recently occurred to me that I'm not the best listener. In fact, I can be a pretty lousy listener. A few weeks ago, I got a call from a friend I hadn't spoken with in a long time. While talking to me, she also happened to be getting a pedicure and planning a trip. Granted, she's a good multitasker, but she's not that good. I was excited to speak with her, but most of what I said barely scratched the surface of her scattered focus. My words kept searching for a place to land but could only hover helplessly in mid-air. She kept getting interrupted, and I kept getting more and more miffed. I thought to myself: I'd never treat someone so disrespectfully. Why bother calling me in the first place? Until I paused for a moment and realized I'm guilty of doing the exact same thing.

When talking on the phone, I sometimes text, read emails, fold laundry, clean, prepare dinner, or engage in various other activities that compromise the depth of my listening. I certainly hear what the other person is saying (well, most of the time), but the quality of my listening isn't as substantial as it could be.

We've become very busy as a society; it sometimes seems we exist in a perpetual state of busyness, with a cascade of concerns vying for our attention at all times. As such, we don't always take the time to truly hear one another. I think one of our most basic needs as human beings is to be heard and understood. It feels deeply satisfying when someone gives you their undivided attention, listens to the minutiae of your day (however tedious it may be), expresses interest in your point of view and particular way of seeing the world, and ensures they understand what you have to say, even beyond words. That kind of listening allows us to feel as though we're not alone, that we matter, that our humanity has been acknowledged, and that we're connected to a grander whole. On the flip side, it feels deeply frustrating when someone offers you just a sliver of their attention, pseudo-listening at best. We know when someone's giving us their full focus or just a sliver, and I'm committed to offering more than a sliver from now on. Enough with the slivers.

My journey toward becoming a better listener both in person and on the phone began by examining all the ways in which I've fallen short in that department. When not multitasking, I sometimes find myself a bit too concerned with what I'm going to say next, striving to come up with a witty retort, wry observation, insightful comment, or good follow-up question to impress the person I'm talking with and fortify the conversation against any dreaded silences. But in thinking about what I'm going to say next, I'm not really listening to what the other person is saying in the moment. The focus is on me instead of them. What a welcome shift to place my attention on the other person, trusting I'll know the exact right thing to say because I'm actually listening to them. And if I don't, and the conversation gives way to silence, that's okay too. In the past, I'd feel an urgent need to fill silences with something, anything, even the most nonsensical, irrelevant, or superficial talk, but, in truth, silence provides a welcome break from the constant chatter. It gives us the space to more deeply process the other person's words, gather our thoughts, and experience the vulnerability of just being with another person minus the cloak of language. There's nothing inherently wrong or awkward with silences, and I can stop working so hard to avoid them.

Another tendency I've noticed is I sometimes step on people's words before they've finished talking. I generally like to build rapport by showing I can relate to what the other person is saying, but sometimes I jump the gun. If a friend starts talking about a musician she really likes, for example, I might jump in and start talking about a musician I really like, sharing my own thoughts and experiences before the other person has finished sharing theirs. In so doing, I actually usurp the conversation, shifting the focus to how my experience stacks up to their experience, instead of fully taking in their experience. Why not let the other person complete their thoughts before I jump in? After all, it's not about telling my story when I'm listening to yours. We'll all have time to tell our stories. Of course, chiming in with markers such as yes, uh-huh, really?, and wow to let the other person know you're listening is great, but breaking the flow of someone's thoughts and interrupting whenever the urge strikes isn't so great.

When people tell me about their problems, I sometimes offer unsolicited advice and/or try to fix the situation. My intention is to be helpful, but when others give me advice without my first asking for it, their words can come across as presumptuous and disagreeable. So now I hold off on dispensing advice unless asked. Placing my efforts on simply listening and understanding actually relieves me of the pressure to fix situations that were never mine to fix in the first place.

At times, I can become so preoccupied with my own thoughts that I'm not fully present to what the other person is saying. My ability to listen is hampered by a focus on self. (Hmm... I'm noticing a theme here). The key seems to lie in switching my focus to the other person and becoming interested in them, genuinely interested. What are they thinking, what are they experiencing, what are they struggling with, what's driving them? Listen as if what they have to say is the most important thing in the world because in that moment, it really is.

Active, conscious, wholehearted listening isn't easy. It demands patience, compassion, sustained concentration, and a willingness to set aside ego, but committing to this level of listening opens the floodgates for powerful communication. We can't effectively communicate with one another unless we know where the other person is coming from. If we don't listen, how can we learn? Listening, indeed, makes the world go round.