Learning to Listen
“Opportunities are often missed because we are broadcasting when we should be listening.”
True listening is at the heart of reconciliation. It is the willingness to take in what another person is saying, even if what they have to say is painful or difficult to hear. It is the acknowledgement of truth as it is, rather than as we wish it to be. Listening means slowing down enough to discern the deep rhythms that resonate under the surface of what another human being is saying. It entails stopping our mind long enough to take in another person’s truth, without judgment, defense, or rebuttal.
In order to open our heart to another person, we must deeply listen to what they have to say. This may sound relatively easy, but it isn’t. When most people say they are “listening,” particularly in a tense situation, what they actually mean is, “I’m biding my time until I can carve out another opportunity to state my point of view.” However, listening with a churning gut and a racing mind, while busily planning our next rebuttal, is not listening—it’s verbal warfare.
In a culture that honors “doing,” multi-tasking, and filling in all the empty places of the day, the art of listening has been all but lost. When our minds are full of TV plots, news headlines, radio jingles, e-mail jokes and to-do lists, it is hard to sit down with the people we care about and take the time to deeply listen. Even in the best of circumstances, listening is hard, and when we feel angry, hurt, or feeling backed into a corner, the difficulty magnifies.
Here are ten ways you can practice listening in your daily life:
1. Commit to listening. Listening is a skill all of us can learn. All it takes is the intention: “I want to learn to listen.”
2. Start with easy conversations. Practice listening in situations where you don’t have a lot at stake: the mom you carpool with, the man waiting in line behind you at the grocery store, a neighbor who drops over for tea.
3. Notice where your mind wanders. Without judging yourself, pay attention to the meandering path of your mind. When are you paying attention? When does your attention wander? Notice how often your mind wanders to the past and the future, how rarely it stays fixed in the present.
4. Bring your mind back. When you notice that your mind is no longer focused on what the other person is saying, gently bring it back and listen again. Do this every time you notice it wandering.
5. Don’t clutter the conversation with your ideas, experiences and opinions. Remain quiet or say things that draw the other person out. “Really? Tell me more.” Or, “That’s interesting. Why do you feel that way?”
6. Honor the other person’s humanity. Remember that the person in front of you is a human being with feelings and needs and ideas as cherished as your own. Your life will be richer for knowing what’s truly in another person’s heart.
7. Practice in more challenging situations. Once you become comfortable listening in non-threatening situations, try listening in situations where you have more at stake.
8. Listening doesn’t mean you have to agree. Just because you’ve chosen to deeply listen to another person’s point of view doesn’t mean you have to change your own.
9. Observe your feelings. When you listen in a conflicted situation, all kinds of feelings will arise. Notice them, but don’t express them. Observe your reactions and responses, then return to listening. Remind yourself that your goal is not to win, but to deeply understand the human being in front of you.
10. Don’t expect perfection. The object of these exercises isn’t perfection; it’s gradually increasing your ability to concentrate, your capacity to listen, and your awareness of your own unique and idiosyncratic mind.
If we truly want to walk the path of reconciliation, we need to be able to listen to what another person has to say. We also need to be prepared to hear the hard truths that might be said. But when we have taken the time to know our own truth, listening to what another person has to say can no longer devastate us in quite the same way. Although hearing the other person’s truth can be painful, it cannot impinge on our wholeness.
Even though there are times when listening verifies our worst fears or confirms that reconciliation isn’t possible, far more often, deeply listening leads to an opening of doors. When our objective is to get to know another person, rather than to win, listening can lead us to a place of great compassion, understanding, and kindness.
© Laura Davis, 2002. This article may be distributed or reproduced as long as you include the author, the copyright and the sentence, “Laura Davis is the author of I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation. You can learn more at her website: http://www.LauraDavis.net"