Being in the last half of January, most of you are probably through the irritating return process from Christmas gift-giving. The process can be so painful that you decide to keep the thing you’ll never wear or use, right?! And how about when we are the ones who gave the gift that is being returned? Ugh...it can feel like a failure.
So, is there a gift we can give – for any occasion - that we can be sure won’t be returned? I believe so: The gift of truly listening to another. I have a hilarious memory to share that illustrates how impactful good listening can be.
I’ll never forget it...My husband Ron and I were hosting my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary celebration in our home. It was a perfect June day in Ohio. The house was full of chatter and laughter with my parents at the center of it all. Mom seemed to be in her glory as she took in all the compliments and stories being shared with her by those who had been witnesses of some part of Faye and Jerry’s 50 years together.
We did the food ourselves – no caterer, which meant someone had to man the grill to keep the meat platters full of chicken and burgers. Ron volunteered, partly so he could keep his introverted self from being overwhelmed by the amount and volume of the conversations taking place all around him.
As it would happen, a quirky friend of ours, (I’ll call him Mitch), discovered Ron’s hiding place at the grill station, and joined him there. I had taken no notice of this movement until I was looking for Ron’s whereabouts and found him nodding his head while he flipped burgers. Mitch’s occupation of Ron’s attention lasted a full 90 minutes – which I didn’t learn until much later that evening while Ron and I were simultaneously cleaning up and debriefing about the event.
That’s when Ron told me Mitch stayed by his side for an hour and a half straight, talking away about everything and nothing, with Ron’s only input being an ‘uh-huh’ or a nodding of his head. I laughed and said,
“Here I thought you must have given him some much-needed advice or solved a perplexing problem he had, because of the comment he made to me when he finally came back inside.”
And here’s the line that became an instant classic in our family: Mitch said to me after his time with Ron:
“Geri, do you know that your husband is the wisest man I know?!”
When I told Ron that was Mitch’s comment, he belly-laughed while telling me he hadn’t said one word of response or advice to any of Mitch’s diatribe - only an occasional grunt or nod. We both laughed till we cried. How ironic Mitch’s compliment of wisdom when Ron hadn’t said a word. Hmm...
To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another. Douglas Steere
During both my Life Coach training almost 20 years ago and the certification process for becoming an Enneagram Practitioner, I received great information on what good, effective listening is. And I did some reading and refreshing on the art of listening before embarking on this post. But the bottom line is this: I have to be motivated to improve what is not inborn for any of us - that is, good listening skills.
Researchers have concluded that the more motivated a listener is, the more active and alert he/she becomes as a receiver. You will not improve your listening skills until you resolve to do so and apply motivation to the practicing of such.
And may I add, that for me as a Enneagram Type 3, it is especially challenging to train myself to not be a hurried listener. Here’s a bullet-point on how Type 3’s communicate:
Direct, topic-focused, fast-paced, and confident. Others may perceive me as impatient, unfeeling, overly efficient, and overriding of other's views.
Oh boy, see what I mean? But I will not faint from applying myself to this goal! My work with clients requires that I am intentional in my posture to put aside my own thoughts and agendas and really be present and hear what they are saying – and not saying. The bigger challenge is with those I love. And although I won’t use it as an excuse, our ‘ever-screen’ culture doesn’t help with our continuous partial attention syndrome.
Here are a few jewels I’ve picked up to practice in this area of effective listening:
· Listening is not the same as hearing. When we hear, we only perceive sounds; but when we listen, this hearing is accompanied by a deliberate and purposeful act of the mind. To listen means to get meaning from what is heard. One may hear the words uttered by another person without really understanding them.
· A specific type of listening, active listening requires the listener to totally concentrate, understand and respond to what is being said instead of just passive hearing. Active listening entails listening with all senses. It also involves providing full attention to the one speaking.
· Your attention can be demonstrated in nonverbal ways, such as eye contact, posture (perhaps leaning forward), being comfortable during pauses/silences, being focused/tuning out all distractions.
· Verbal ways to affirm you are actively listening: without interrupting, reflect back to the speaker what you hear her/him saying, ask questions that reveal you are taking in & understand her intended message, and perhaps asking her to say more about something you sensed her feeling more about.
My desire for overcoming my roadblocks to being an empathetic, active listener can be found in this quote:
If someone knows another person is really listening, the conversation changes. The speaker doesn’t need to desperately guard her or his opinion. The speaker has no need to line up convincing counter arguments. The conversation has room for reflection and deeper understanding. Rev. Catherine Tran
I invite you to consider...
Can you think of someone in your life who demonstrates the traits of an empathetic, active listener? How have their listening skills affected your comfortability in sharing vulnerably with them?
Is there a aspect of listening to which you desire to put intentionality? How/where/with whom might you practice that in your daily life?
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