Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.
~ Cuban Proverb
On its surface, listening is not that hard. Someone is speaking, we hear and comprehend the words, and we gain an understanding of what he or she is conveying.
It’s that third bit where people often falter.
To really understand what a person is saying, we need to consider the context, the person’s background or history, and any emotional subtext. Also, we have to observe. Is the person’s speech rushed? Are they animated? Are they louder or higher-pitched that usual? For some, all of these things come naturally, but others barely hear the words, never mind consider the subtleties.
In interacting with other people, it can often be difficult to ascertain their points of view, their motives, or their agenda (if they have one). However, with an awareness of certain aspects of that person’s physical and emotional responses, it is much easier to know where they’re coming from. When speaking with someone, it can be revealing to pay close attention to what they’re doing with their arms or hands, the way they’re breathing, and any changes in the color of their face or the intensity of their eyes. It is often the case that these attributes can communicate more than words.
This does take practice. We have to be observant of the changes that are taking place, but we must also practice how to interpret those changes. An intense emotional response can be either positive or negative. Do you know which? Crossed arms can mean distance or discomfort, but it may be one of a person’s normal mannerism.
There is also another factor in good listening—thinking about how we can add to the person’s ideas and develop a meaningful conversation. Asking questions that can get the person thinking more deeply, or from a different perspective. How can you interact with the person, not to show you know more than them, but to add something that’s complementary or helpful?
How do we respond when someone is talking to us? Do we drift off or glaze over? Of course, it depends on the circumstances. We might respond differently to input from someone at a budget meeting or a fishing story from a gabby guest at a party than to a close friend talking about something of mutual interest. But how we listen to anyone is important. Paying attention to people is not just polite, it’s just one more way that we can practice “paying attention” in all aspects of our lives.
In my work life, I have had long-standing associations with big talkers—and I mean BIG talkers. Some people talk to process ideas or organize their thoughts; others just love to hear the sound of their own voice. My experience with big talkers has both helped me and hurt me. It has given me a lot of experience in listening without really listening—in appearing as if I’m paying attention, while at the same time thinking of something completely different (a dubious skill). But it has also made me realize how hard it can be to listen (to really listen) and how important this skill is.
Making a concerted effort to not only hear and acknowledge what someone is saying, but to play an active role in a conversation about a topic we’re not very interested in, or have no context for, can also be a great way to improve our conversation skills, discover areas of common interest, and maybe even learn something new.
Investing your Time
In conversations, there can be a pronounced grass-is-greener effect. While listening to someone drone on and on, it is easy to think about someone else we’d rather be talking to, or all the things we have to do that day. Often, there probably are things that would be a better use of our time. Time is certainly a precious commodity. However, we shouldn’t be so quick to move on to the next pressing task. Giving the gift of our time to someone has the potential to expand our horizons in a way that conducting business as usual, or talking to the same circle of people, couldn’t possibly.
I have trouble with focus generally, and with listening to people talk specifically. I’m sure in the past I’ve come across as uninterested, aloof, or even rude, when my perceived lack of interest was actually a lack of ability to focus. As a result of this, I have to work to pay attention at a very conscious level, using techniques for making sure I don’t lose focus. These include actively thinking about common experiences and contexts, considering questions that I might ask to clarify or expand on what the person is saying, and paying close attention to nonverbal cues. In this way, I am (or I try to be) an active listener, rather than one who is just a recipient of words. Learning to listen with all of our attention also shows respect and an openness to really hearing what people are saying.
The world is full of interesting people. We pass them on the street every day. Look at each encounter you have as an opportunity and a gift. Allow people in—through your senses and your thoughts. Every head is a world, there for us to explore.