Did you hear me? Listen to me when I'm talking to you. You never listen to me. Will you just shut up and listen?
I can't count how many times I've heard or said those phrases. Mostly in frustration or anger. Yet, I still don't listen very well. I'm glad you are willing to join me on a short journey to becoming a better listener.
Listen More, Talk Less
I always giggle when I hear the sentiment we have been given one mouth and two ears, and we should do the math and act accordingly. So true. And seemingly impossible. The basic and obvious difference is this: listening is passive and talking is active. And we just want to be heard.
I lived out of the world for a few years. Literally out of the world. No phone, no internet, no outside news. Completely unplugged. When I came back to the "normal" world, my experience of communication was very different. Others asked me if anything changed. It seemed that the explosion of social media meant that everyone was desperately trying to be heard, and the only solution was to yell louder. What would happen if we yelled less and listened more?
So, how do we learn to listen? Really listen? Listen in the way that those whom we love and care for are asking us to.
Challenges to Listening
I'm an interrupter. A master interrupter. Many arguments have started in my relationships because I am so good at interrupting. I want to be heard more than I want to hear. Sound familiar?
I am guilty of what Susan Heitler Ph.D. calls "rebound listening". I've heard other terms used for this, but basically, in the back of my mind, I'm planning what I'm going to say next while the person I'm going to respond to is still talking. Or worse yet, I'm planning how to respond before they even get started. Yikes!
Here's the good news. I can honestly say I don't do this intentionally. As I've become more aware of my tendency to interrupt, sometimes I can actually hear the "voice" of the interrupter before it manages to come out of my mouth, and I am able to go back to actually listening. Other times the "voice" just speaks freely. Oops!
Like changing any habit, it takes time and patience. Patience with myself as my listening skills improve and, hopefully, the enlisting the patience of others. Marion Grobb Finkelstein, of Marion Speaks, has interesting insights into interrupting and being interrupted.
"That's all fine and good, Brian, but how do we become better listeners?" It all begins with awareness. Can I see, or hear, the interrupting voice before it automatically comes out. Or the voice that says "bored now". Or whatever the anti-listening habit of choice is.
How do we become aware? It's a big question. Try this. When you are having a conversation, do you notice anything else about your environment, like the color of the walls, scenery, smells, sensations in your body?
At first, this is tricky. It might take you out of the conversation completely. Try asking your conversation partner to pause for a moment and turn your attention to something in the room. Perhaps make this an exercise that you both undertake. I hope it's obvious that trying this in a heated conversation with a spouse, partner, or angry boss is a bad choice. Start small and easy.
With practice, you will eventually reach the point where you can become aware of something around you and hold a conversation at the same time.
So, why the Jedi mind tricks? Noticing something in your environment, especially a body sensation brings you into the present moment. When you are grounded in the present moment you are able to listen closely to what the person is saying in the present moment. That is where communication is taking place, both verbal and non-verbal.
Listening as Mindfulness
By the way, this is a mindfulness practice. It takes time, but it's possible to become aware of something that you are directly involved in, the conversation, and something on the periphery of your experience, a bodily sensation at the same time.
It sounds simple, and it is, but we don't usually use our attention this way. Often the simple things are the most challenging to master, but they can bring about the most profound changes. There's a lot more to the mindfulness story, but that's one way to approach the listening challenge.
Wouldn't it be great no longer hear, "Are you listening to me?" What if you were able to really tune into the person you are talking to in a way that they felt heard? It might be nothing short of miraculous.