“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.”Dean Jackson, author of The Poetry of Oneness: Illuminating Awareness of the True Self.
Have you ever noticed that most people aren’t very good listeners? Typically, when I am at a party or other social gathering, the people I meet will talk about what interests them and not engage in a dialogue with you. A woman might ask what you do for a living and you say, “I am a teacher.” “Oh, my brother is a teacher too,” she replies. “He teaches math. But I was never any good at math.” Where do you go from here? She asked what you do for a living but doesn’t really want to know more about you. Rather, she is drawing a connection back to herself (her brother is a teacher) and she doesn’t like math. Her ego is getting in the way of a meaningful dialogue.
Truly listening requires a deeper level of connection. In fact, don’t talk to me about what you do for a living. Let’s talk about ideas. What is important to you? What do you value? What gets your heart racing? Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Let’s connect as two spirits in this great adventure known as life. Don’t talk to me about all the expenses and hassle of maintaining your big house or name drop places you have traveled in the world. Tell me instead how you helped someone in need with your wealth or how you traveled across the world and escaped from danger because a kind local person helped you after becoming lost in an unfamiliar place.
Habit number four of Steven Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Seek first to understand. Then to be understood.” Many people seem to think it most important to tell their stories rather than understand the other person. What you say to another simply reminds that person of a something else they want to share. “Oh, that reminds me of something that happened to me,” someone will say. This is not genuine listening. Rather it can be a contest to see who can get the most words into a verbal exchange.
Being a good listener means paying attention to what the other person is saying, responding with appropriate questions like, “Was that upsetting to you?” or “You must be very happy about your daughter’s new job.” Listening means not judging such as saying things like, “Wow. That really wasn’t a smart thing to do.” Listening isn’t telling the other person how you have it worse off they do. “You think your health is bad. Let me tell you what’s wrong with me.” Or “You think you have a bad boss. Well, listen to this…”
Listening is affirming the worth of the other person by paying attention to what they say and how they feel. Think of a conversation as you holding the other person’s heart in your hand. You need to be tender and caring with that heart because deep inside is a small child wanting to be acknowledged. “Tell me about your day,” you ask. And when your spouse or child tells you, you look at him or her and really listen. “Oh, you must be proud of yourself,” you tell your son when he shows you a science test he got an A on. Or “That sounds really frustrating,” you tell your partner after he tells you how his boss wasn’t interested in his new idea to solve a problem at work.
Good listeners can summarize the key thoughts or feelings of the other person in their own words. When you do that, the other person will feel heard and may say, “Exactly” in response to you. As in, you captured just what I was trying to say.
When I lived in Limerick, Ireland, I participated in a workshop with an organization called Narrative4. The Limerick location is the first Narrative4 office outside of the United States. The organization was co-founded by Irish author Colum McCann and Lisa Consiglio. According to its website, Narrative4.com, the mission of this worldwide organization is to build a community of empathic global citizens who improve the world through the exchange of personal narratives.
So what this organization does is teach people to deeply listen to a story about someone else’s life and then be able to share what they said to the group in your own words. Your partner then recounts your story in this public forum as well. Doing this was a very powerful experience. I could also see how it can be used to bring deeper understanding not only to two individuals but to clashing political parties or to nations in conflict, such as Israel and Palestine.
Many people are good at talking. Some can entertain you or even make you laugh. Others, unfortunately, make you long to be alone, where you can have silence and think your own thoughts or simply be in the moment. But it’s a rare person indeed who is good at listening and able to hold their own ego in check long enough to make a deep spiritual connection with another human being.
Life Lesson: Learn to be a good listener by paying attention to others. Ask people questions. Respond to what they say to you with kindness and concern. Restate key thoughts of what they told you in your own words. This way the other person truly feels acknowledged. This is how you make meaningful connections. This is how you make good friends. This is how you make the world a better place.