We listen every day, but not all of us think of listening as a skill to be developed. Listening is a quiet, internal stance and it is easy to overlook. Like most worthwhile endeavours, learning to listen well is worthy of both our attention and effort.
I thought long and hard about how to write a blog about listening. Writing is kind of like talking. The writer chooses what to say, and the reader listens. So I decided that this blog would not be my voice, but the voices of my trusted family members, friends and colleagues. I asked them to share what they have come to know, believe and value about listening.
This is the collective wisdom of some of the best listeners I know.
- Be Interested (Grandpa Enns)
There are amazing things all around us. There are amazing people all around us. People are remarkable. Sometimes wonderfully different and even somewhat eccentric. What a gift to be able to hear each other and expand our horizons and understandings. Be truly interested in what people have to say. My grandpa Enns talked to everyone. In fact, my grandma found it disconcerting. He never ignored people, pretended not to see them or discounted them. He listened with a sense of awe and interest, and held some of his grandchildren’s best secrets.
- Be Active (My Children)
We are not passive – we are not just a listening receptacle. People are giving us something we need to actively receive. Look at the person, smile if appropriate, nod, lean in, give a few verbal encouragers like “yes” or “uh-huh”. It takes a lot of determination and concentration to remain active and not let our thoughts drift. We all have a million things on our mind; this is no excuse. Ask for clarification and know that if we zone out, we will not catch what they are saying and will miss the gift. My children remind me of this every so often with, “Mom, I told you this already.”
- Be Vulnerable (A Colleague)
We think telling our story makes us vulnerable, but listening places us in an equally vulnerable position. To listen, to really listen, is to open ourselves to the perspective of another, and that challenges our assumptions and understandings. When we really listen our mental box opens. We might even have a perspective shift and learn something new about ourselves and others, and all we need to do is be open. This tidbit comes from a colleague whose profession entails hearing a lot of stories that stretch boundaries.
- Be present (Children in my Neighbourhood)
Don’t bring your experience into theirs. Don’t take away from their experience by tagging yours on too quickly. When people share their lives, experiences or emotion they are giving us a valued commodity – fully receive it. I know we want to relate, but sharing our experience might just take away from theirs, and ultimately from our understanding of the person or situation. Don’t be planning a response or rebuttal so as to be ready to respond. Just listen. We will find the right words at the right time – and this is not when someone is talking.
And the truth is, sometimes we don’t have the energy, don’t know what to say, are in the presence of wiser people, or simply run out of words. In these moments listening provides us with a safe place. The children in my neighbourhood do this naturally and authentically.
- Be responsive (A Colleague)
Ask meaningful questions. Laugh if it’s fitting. Cry if you are moved. Enter their emotional landscape. Sometimes it is appropriate to share a similar experience, but usually not too quickly and certainly not to equate their experience with ours. “I know how you feel,” or “That happened to me,” is not about listening, it is about validating their experience based on ours. First fully receive, then offer a response. People need to hear they are not alone in their experience, and we may have something to share. But before we do, we should ask ourselves if this is the right time.
- Be gracious (A Neighbour)
Don’t judge people. No matter what their station or circumstance in life. Reach out with care and graciousness, open your ears and open your heart. It is natural to judge. We do it without saying a word; it happens internally. Be honest. I’m going to tell you something and your first reaction is to judge me. You tell me something, and I judge you. I think, “Really?” or “Why would they do that?” Remember that when someone opens up, it’s what they have to give – those of us listening need to simply receive. My dear friend and neighbour lives this and I am a better person as a result.
Let’s determine to bring the right mindset to our listening experiences.