Listening – Can You Hear Me Now?
I think I was in the first grade when I was first introduced to the sage wisdom of “Stop, Look and Listen” as spoken by a local police officer who had obviously drawn the small straw that day or had cranked off the chief. I’m not sure why I assumed it only applied to childhood traffic safety, or, for that matter, why I don’t follow that advice in more areas of my life. Think about it, if the whole world were to stop, look and listen once in a while we might actually find a cure for the dreaded Foot in Mouth disease.
So much of the drama in our lives, both personally and globally, seems to stem, and suffer, from our really bad communication habits. Most of the time, when we actually do stop, it’s just to take a breath, or to plot our next point in the dialogue and not to actually digest the words and meanings of someone else. And, of course, while we’re speaking, they are doing the same. It becomes a sort of self-defeating game of conversational football, where you get points by actually missing the point altogether. I hear you get bonus points if you can tune in just long enough to lock in on one word or phrase, grab it, and run it in the opposite direction. And if you can actually make the veins in the other person’s forehead twitch – touchdown! But if we could just re-teach ourselves to literally stop – we might be amazed at what we could hear and learn – even from people with whom we disagree. We tend to hear and learn very little when our lips are moving.
With so much of our communication success resting on non-verbal cues and nuances, we’d do well to revisit our ability to ‘look’ and pay attention as well. There are times, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced, when what a person says is undermined or literally countered, by how they are saying it. “That will be just fine”, can sometimes mean “that is not fine at all”. Or worse, it can actually be translated “you just go ahead and try it you lousy piece of crap and see what happens”. It’s all in how they say it. Paying attention to body language, voice inflections and facial expressions can save you a lot in legal fees and hospital bills. Anyone who has ever been married should be well aware that there are actually twenty-two and a half different meanings to the word “fine”, and only two of those are pleasant.
There are many simple, yet common, misconceptions when it comes to listening. We sometimes forget that the reason we listen is to understand. Yes, I do know how obvious that sounds, but we’re so busy trying to be understood that we sometimes forget this foundational element. Communication experts have always counseled us to begin each dialogue by demonstrating our understanding of the other person’s point of view before trying to make our own. This can be very annoying and often patronizing but, the reason those experts have been telling us this for so long is an important truth that we somehow need to incorporate if we are ever going to be truly understood. The fact is people can’t really hear you until they feel heard by you. We all know this to be true from our own experiences of trying to be heard. The other person might be nodding in agreement, but we know from their demeanor and their glazed-over expression that they really don’t get it. So, when they try to offer advice, we can’t really hear or accept it, because we are convinced that they don’t have a firm grasp on the situation. We will never hear them until we feel like we’ve been heard by them. We will always have objections to their opinions until we feel like they really understand.
Another menacingly obvious thing to remember about listening is that listening can be just listening. Hearing and taking in information without speaking. I know it sounds so revolutionary. Allowing the other person to speak and share their thoughts, giving them full voice. Making it all-about-them-dot-com. Besides what it may do for the other person, it will also help you to avoid many pitfalls and dangers related to miscommunications and cross purposes. The Bible says “even a fool, when he is silent, people will think he’s wise”. Another way to put it; A closed mouth gathers no feet.