Have you ever had the experience of having someone tell you that they are a really good listener or that they are good with people, but within a very short while in conversation, you realise that quite the opposite is true?
I remember once running a therapy group a long time back and one woman in the group introduced herself and indicated that she felt one of her strengths was being a "a good listener", but in the very next group exercise, she could not remember her partner's name that she had just been talking to previously nor anything about her!
Why do we so often consider that we can listen, but really we do not?
The answer lies in the fact that because we have ears, we automatically assume that we can listen. Wrong. Having ears and hearing is not listening.
Listening is not the same as hearing. "Hearing" is really a passive act which really does not require you to participate. In contrast, "listening" is an active act which demands your real attention.
You know as well as I do, that if you stop and think about it, you can hear every word of the statement and yet have not paid a skerrick of attention to it. You heard with your ears, but you did not listen.
What It Is Not
"Listening" is not any one of the following:
- Maintaining a polite silence: listening does not mean simply maintaining a polite silence while you are rehearsing in your head the speech you are going to make the next time your partner stops talking and you grab a conversational opening.
- Mowing others down: listening does not mean waiting alertly for flaws in the other person's arguments so that later you can mow him or her down.
- Having all the answers and giving advice: listening does not mean that you are supposed to come up with all the necessary answers to problems or issues or be especially knowledgeable and wise and sophisticated. Regardless, can you ever know "what is best" for the other person when they have a totally different life experience from you?
- Giving inappropriate minimal responses: listening is not simply a case of saying "I see" or "yes" or "uh-huh" at various pauses or at specific times in the conversation when you think it looks appropriate to do so.
- Playing "psychiatrist": listening is not trying to be insightful and interpretive and kind of "big dealing" yourself by being in touch with the latest theories on human dynamics and human development.
- Parroting: listening is not regurgitating back to your partner word for word what you have directly heard like a tape recorder play-back does nor does it mean being like a "parrot".
- Sympathy: listening is not showing sympathy for a person and feeling for the other person.
- Automatic skill: listening is not just, something that comes naturally, where everyone is just sort of born with it and everyone has an in-built ability to be able to listen and communicate with others around them.
What It Is
- Empathy: listening is being able to show empathy for a person, which means experiencing with the other what they feel and think. This means entering actively and imaginatively into the other person's situation and trying to understand a frame of reference and a perspective different from your own. It means not only hearing the words, but picking up the feeling tones, even perhaps the meaning that might be somewhat hidden for the speaker. Can we sense the shape of the other person's inner world; can we put ourselves in their shoes and appreciate what it is like to be them? In the novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird", listening appropriately to another person is described as the ability to jump inside the skin of the other person and walk around and see the world through the eyes of the other.
- Asking questions: a good listener does not merely remain silent, but is prepared to ask questions without any hint of scepticism or challenge or hostility (whether in wording or non-verbally). Such questions need to be clearly motivated by genuine curiosity about the speaker's view and as such could be called "questions for clarification". These questions simply request more information (eg. "Can you expand on that point?" "Can you state that argument again?")
- Giving feedback: the listener must communicate to the other that he or she has heard and critically, this needs to be done in a non-judgemental, accepting, non-evaluative and caring way. Therefore, saying things like, "What you are really saying is....." or "Summarising what you've said....." allows the other person to know if you are "on target" and are correct in what you consider you have heard.
- A learned skill: it is not innate, but is an acquired skill that has to be practised and worked at (like many other skills in life).
Redemptive and Creative
Being able to intensively listen to another is a gift. It is truly redemptive to others and creative. Redemptive because when someone really hears us and sensitively understands, it frees us from the fear of ourselves and our inadequacies and feelings of lack of self-worth. We kind of say, "Well, if they have seen me for what I really am and still are prepared to talk to me and like me, then, maybe I'm not so bad after all; maybe I don't have to hide anymore".
Redemptive because we become more whole and re-own those parts of us that we have previously shut away. Creative because it unleashes new energy in us to grow; it encourages us to move on and continue to find ourselves and grapple with life. Listening is a very real gift. It's one that is given to all of us if we wish to use it and practise it and its power is absolutely profound. Are you using your gift?