Listening is a Gift
Listening is a rare gift you give to someone. With all the noise and distractions in our lives, people do not feel heard. When you give the gift of listening- what you receive in return is greater than the gift you give.
This is the start of a talk my wife Dawn and I gave at an event at our church called TRUE Talks, an idea event, loosely based on TED Talks. The topic of the morning was “listening”. We were asked to speak on “Listening to Others”. There were a few requests for our notes, so what follows is a transcript of our talk. It is a bit long for a blog post, but here it is.
When shown this picture above, most people tend to describe it using words such as “they’re having a conversation,” “he’s giving advice,” “he’s teaching his friend about something,” or “he’s telling an interesting or entertaining story.” Rarely do we focus on words which direct our attention towards listening, such as “he’s hearing what the other person is saying,” “one person is paying attention to the other,” or “he’s learning about an interesting concept.
In fact, our lives reflect a valuing of speaking over listening. We marvel at a baby’s first words. We offer courses in school on being effective speakers. We join Toast Masters’ clubs. But do we also call our friends to announce that our baby has learned to listen? Do schools instruct students in ways to become more effective listeners? And I’m sure you’re curious – a Google search turned up zero results for ‘listening clubs’. So, how DO we become listeners? And what exactly IS listening?
What is (good) listening?
Level one: Internal Listening or Listening to ME
I’m listening through the filter of ME. How does what I hear affect me? How does this story relate to my story? Or, oh, I can top that…
Level two: Focused Listening or Listening to YOU
It is NOT about me. I am focusing all my attention on you. I am fully engaged. I am not allowing myself to be distracted by the environment or thoughts in my head. I am listening to you with my whole body.
Level three: Global Listening or Listening to US
This adds another layer of sensing or knowing. You are using intuition. You can sense or know things that you have no way of cognitively knowing. An added spiritual dimension of listening
Today we are going to focus on Level two – Listening to YOU.
Good listening doesn’t just happen. As the Scout’s motto says – “Be Prepared”. There are three elements to consider: Time, Place/Environment, Mindset.
Time: Select a time when you have the energy to pay attention – listening is hard work!
Place: Choose a place that is conducive to listening – one that has minimal distractions.
Mind: Have a clear mind and tuned spirit. Psalm 46:10 says “Be still and know that I am God.” We are not very good at the ‘still’ part.
The hardest one of the three is to clear your mind. Here are a few tips or suggestions:
We go through our day with lots of thoughts in our heads. Before a time of listening, take out a piece of paper and write down everything that you are thinking – then set it aside. You no longer need to think about those things and the thoughts will be there to ruminate over when you are done listening.
Go for a 10-minute walk – best if outside, nature has a way of healing our mind and spirit.
Pray – ‘help me to focus and pay attention’.
Practice being aware of the moment – the here and now.
Our brains our tricky in that we can only ‘think’ in the past or the future. We can’t ‘think’ about now – now can only be experienced.
Here are some simple techniques to quiet the chatter in our minds.
- Practice doing one thing at a time in your daily life. Multitasking is truly harmful.
- Be aware of your body. Take a few minutes and focus your attention on your breathing, or your feet pressing on the floor. Or you back and bottom pressing into the chair you are sitting on.
- Close your eyes and listen to sounds around you.
As you spend a few minutes to focus your attention on your body and the environment around you, you tune down the chatter of the thinking mind and you experience the here and now. Practice these simple techniques and they will quiet your mind – you will be prepared to listen.
So you say, “Well that is great but sometimes conversations just happen. Can’t always plan for them and have time to prepare.” The same elements are involved but you must take some short cuts.
Time: Well it is now. You will have to dig deep into your energy reserves and just suck it up. Realize you will be tired afterwards. It gives you a good excuse for a nap.
Place: You can always find a more conducive corner. Say, “Hold that thought, let’s move over there. I want to hear what you are saying”. In this moment you are also honoring the person by telling them it is important that you listen to what they want to say.
Mind: Minimize distractions. Turn off or silence your phone – put it away. Say a quick prayer. Be aware of your feet on the floor, your breathing, sounds in the room to clear your mind. Take a deep breath. You are ready to listen.
If you have practiced the deliberate preparations for a planned listening event, you know how you feel when you are ready to listen. It is important to practice.
Whether you are engaging in a planned listening experience or a spontaneous one, there are several behaviors you can draw upon that go a long way in developing your skills as a listener. Some are common sense and familiar, such as face the speaker, make eye contact, don’t offer unsolicited advice, and attend to body language and tone of voice. There are also some listening behaviors which might be ones you’ve yet to practice.
- Ask questions – and then ask some more questions. This not only shows we are, and have been listening, it also shows we are interested, and allows us to gain a greater awareness of what the speaker is thinking.
- Respect pauses and moments of silence. Many times, a pause or even a stretch of silence is reflective of the speaker re-framing his/her thoughts, or debating where to go next. If we immediately began responding, we may derail where the speaker needed to/wanted to go, or we may turn the focus of the conversation onto ourselves.
- Occasionally state, “Please tell me more.” This is a way to respond without interrupting the speaker’s flow or redirecting conversation away from where the speaker would like it to go, and, like asking questions, allows us to show our interest as well as gain more insight into the speaker’s thoughts.
- Don’t spend the ‘listening time’ thinking about/planning a reply. This is perhaps the hardest but most important skill to develop. As Stephen Covey is noted for saying, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” That kind of listening does not merit the speaker’s time or energy.
Planning our response while the speaker is speaking clearly means we are unable to listen fully and deeply. It also typically indicates that what we are planning on saying is more about ‘us’ than about the speaker’s message. Sometimes we prepare, and interject responses, for the purpose of making sure the speaker knows how wise or intelligent WE are. This could be in form of stating facts, or opinions, or even in the form of illustrating how WE would have done something. Sometimes we plan (while we could be listening) a comment or response to show that we have something in common with either the speaker or with what is being said – which has the potential of turning the conversation away from the speaker and onto ourselves. None of these planned-while-we-should-have-been-listening responses show the speaker that we have attended to or are interested what she/he is sharing and is concerned about.
This is Why
Clearly, listening is a skill to be developed and practiced. So, why would you, or I, or anyone, choose to invest our time and energy into doing that? What are some of the benefits of listening?
First of all, and probably the most impactive benefit, is that listening is a gift you give to the person who is speaking. It honors their presence in the world.Since most people don’t have others in their lives who are genuinely listening to them, your act of listening is a rare opportunity you are providing for that person. It shows both that they have value, and that they are valued by you.
Secondly, listening allows you to learn about others. As others are speaking they are revealing their background, interests, talents, concerns…You can learn about their hobbies, or work life, or family experiences…
Next, listening also helps you learn about the world. Those you are listening to may know about topics that are unfamiliar to you. They may open your mind to new ideas or new experiences.
In addition, when you listen, you learn about yourself. As you are listening to others, you become aware of what intrigues you, excites or concerns you, and what captures your interest.
Furthermore, listening is a source of enjoyment. Often, others tell stories, or provide humor, or describe experiences had or locations they have been to – all which can be enjoyable to hear.
Finally, listening builds trust. When you show you have listened well, the speaker gains trust in you – which increases the likelihood that s/he will listen deeply to you in the future. The shared trust you build will strengthen your relationship.
Are you ready to give the gift of listening?
Here is our challenge to you:
In the next two weeks, set aside a time and a place for a ‘listening event’. Prepare for the event.
– OR –
Be aware of how you listen when you find yourself in a spontaneous listening opportunity.
Let us know how it went. firstname.lastname@example.org