“A listening ear is a priceless gift.” Rachel Macy Stafford
Hands Free Life – 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better and Loving More
I’ve done a lot of good things in my life (there, I said it!) and I continue to do them, but I also have my share of regrets. Near the top of that list (okay, it’s actually at the top!) is that the art of listening and the importance of being heard are two concepts that came to me very late in the game. Given how critical both of those skills are to what it means to be fully human, you’d think they’d either come naturally or that educators would have long since found a way to incorporate them into school curricula, beginning in kindergarten – but they don’t and they haven’t. Instead, like too many things of their kind, we’re more or less left to figure them out on our own and, generally speaking, that’s never a good thing! That’s especially true when it comes to listening.
Why is that? I think there are at least 5 reasons.
For starters, listening requires a quiet space and that we be fully present. In today’s world, both of those commodities are extremely hard to come by. Don’t believe me? Pause for just a moment and consider how much quiet time you’ve had in the last 24 hours. If you’re like most it will be a very small fraction. Smaller still will be the amount of time you’ve spent free of the distractions that are so much a part of our modern everyday lives (e.g., smartphones, computers, TVs, tablets, etc.). It’s not that we can’t make the time and space or fully detach – we can do both. It’s just that with all that occupies our time (i.e., work, family, social commitments, activities, etc.) making it and doing it require conscious effort and commitment. But know this: You can’t listen, nor can someone truly feel heard without doing both.
Second, listening requires that you shut up and open up. At the risk of being blunt and stating the obvious (which, believe it or not, to many, including myself at one time, is not “obvious” at all!), you can’t expect to be a quality listener if your mouth is open. So shut it and open your heart instead – wide. In fact, make a point of telling the person who’s speaking what you’re doing and why you’re doing it: “I’m closing my mouth now – and opening my heart. I’m ready to hear what you have to say.” Some of the most intimate conversations I’ve ever had have been ones where both parties showed up and simply allowed their hearts to talk to each other – few words, lots of tears, some knowing silence and a lingering, meaningful embrace (or two!).
Third, listening requires that you pre-dispose your ears (and your heart) to empathy, rather than judgment. This was always a stumbling block for me and I know I’m not alone. But, the fact is: It’s impossible to listen with a judgmental heart, because another’s truth will never find its way across the moat of guilt and shame that protects it. In fact, truth be told, another will never feel safe to even attempt to speak their truth, knowing there is a likelihood they will be judged first and heard, if at all, second. What’s the key to this piece? Accepting rather than just paying lip service to the fact that someone else’s perceptions, experiences, feelings, opinions, etc. are just as real and just as entitled to validation as our own. Why that was so hard for me to figure out for so long will forever be a mystery to me.
Fourth, listening requires that you set aside your desire to “fix” the speaker. Another speed bump on yours truly’s road to becoming a better listener. You see, I always fancied myself as one of the great fixers of all time, especially where my children were concerned. So, it was a very small, albeit self-absorbed step for me to assume that anytime they (or anyone else for that matter!) came to me with an issue, a fear, a dilemma or a problem they did it with an eye towards my fixing it. Often times, they hadn’t even finished talking before I was busy laying out “The Solution”. It was only later that I realized that all they ever really wanted was a listening ear and to know that they’d been heard – by a word of acknowledgement, the shedding of a tear, an expression of empathy, some combination of the three or simply a warm embrace.
Fifth (and finally) listening demands that we refrain from taking others’ words personally, from responding to them as a child or teenager would when caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing (e.g., with incredulity and anger, by marshaling evidence designed to deflect what we construe as blame, by slamming things and storming out of the room, etc.) and, instead, accept them for what they are and all they were ever intended to be: A sacred glimpse into another’s soul and its truth. That’s not to say there aren’t times when the words we hear will hurt – there will be and they will. But, even those words have a need, indeed a right to be spoken and to be heard, because the alternative is for them to be swallowed and to take their truth with them. The bottom line: Shame and guilt have no place in the listening equation.
Thankfully, I’m a much better listener today, due, in large part, to a lot of people who have taught me not only the importance of it, but some of the skills necessary to develop it into an art form. The good news is: You can acquire them too and, with them, the key to more thoughtful, more intimate, more heartfelt and more life-affirming conversations not only with those you love (e.g., your children, spouse, parents, partner, those you’re charged with ministering to, colleagues, friends, siblings, etc.) but with others you’re likely to meet on your life’s journey who are in desperate need of being heard and have never been given the gift of an ear and a heart truly committed to listening.