Listen Up!

"Everybody’s talking at me
Can’t hear a word they’re saying."
Everybody’s Talkin’ by Fred Neil

"So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it."
Jiddu Krishnamurti

How much of what you don’t know is because you weren’t listening? Imagine how knowledgeable you would be if you had always paid attention in school and had asked for clarification when you didn’t understand. Imagine how wise and beloved you would be if you really heard what people close to you said. If you lost your hearing, you would consider it a great loss, but how well do you really listen?

Most of the sound we hear goes in one ear and out the other. It doesn’t register. It is not important to listen to the hum of the computer fan or the air conditioning, unless there is something wrong with it. It is background noise. It doesn’t go away, but we usually aren’t aware of hearing it. We filter it out. Sometimes when people talk, we do the same thing. If we are around someone who talks continuously and doesn’t say much of interest to us, we are likely to filter them out too. Some of us become skilled at feigning attention, so the talker assumes we are listening and prattles on while our mind is elsewhere. This is not listening.

Some people think they are listening, but then switch to problem solving before the other person is even through saying their piece. They get the gist of the other’s concern and then come up with a solution. Guys do this a lot. They don’t realize that the female part of the conversation is sharing a problem as an act of relationship or intimacy and is not necessarily asking for help. The fella offers a solution, which not only seems to end the exchange, it sets him up as the top dog in the relationship, and the lady as the silly person who couldn’t figure out what to do. This is not listening, and it is not helpful in building the relationship.

Listening is the receptive part of communication. It is receiving information and processing it. It may look like a passive activity, but it is not. Listening requires that we focus our attention. It requires us to try to understand the information we are receiving. For good communication to occur, listening also includes clarifying whether or not we have understood the message sent.

Listening is a way of loving others.  It is an opportunity for us to be truly present to others in such a way that it allows them the space to hear what they themselves are thinking and feeling.

Listening is an act of empathy and compassion. We can’t truly understand the words of another unless we are able to empathize with them, to sense something of what it feels like to be them.

Listening is compassionate in the sense that by focussing our attention on the other person we make a connection with them, and to feel connected and understood is one of the most necessary of human experiences.

Ways we can practice effective listening:

This week, practice really listening to people. Pay special attention to the communications of those you love.

Focus on the other person. Look at them. Make eye contact.

Be aware of non-verbal communication. Facial expression, tone of voice, and body language communicate more than mere words do. This goes for yours as well as theirs.

Don’t interrupt. While the other person is talking, listen to them. Check your inclination to start developing your response to them while they are talking.

Become comfortable with silence. You don’t have to talk just because there is a pause.

Give the other person clues that you are paying attention to them. Nodding, the occasional, 'Uh huh,' 'Hmm,' and 'I see,' suggest you are interested. But use these when you really are listening.

Don’t assume you understand. Check it out. Ask clarifying questions.

Use paraphrasing, but not parroting. People get annoyed if you just repeat back to them the words they just said, but if you say back to them the picture their words created in your mind, you will help them to clarify the message.

Look for the message beyond the words. Sometimes people don’t say what they may want to or need to say right from the start. Be alert to the possibility that what is being said is not the whole story.

Watch out for unpleasant emotions. You don’t need to become hostile just because the other person is, or just because their ideas are in conflict with yours.

Ignore distractions. If you are a little uncomfortable with the conversation, you may find many distractions to draw you away from it.

Be aware of your internal states. You can only respond coherently if you are aware of your emotions as well as your thoughts.

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© 1999-2002 Tom Barrett