Many of us know how good it is to be in the presence of somebody who truly listens to us. When that happens, we feel like we matter, we feel seen, and heard, and known. And even though we love receiving it, I am pretty sure that learning how to give it, how to listen well to others, is not at the top of most of our priority lists. I chose to highlight it here because it’s a skill that can be used daily and one that would benefit and bless all of our relationships.
So what stands in the way of us listening well?
Too distracted: Some of us have a hard time slowing down enough to pay attention. The phone is beeping, the mental to-do list is lingering, and it feels like there is no time and no mental space to stop and be fully present with the other. I heard one guy say the other day that he is tired of competing with people’s smartphones for their attention, and I could relate so deeply. It is hard work to be more interesting than your million friends on Instagram.
Too full of ourselves: Some have so much to say that they try dominate each conversation and don’t allow space for others to get in a word edgewise, let alone open up and share freely. There are those who never think of asking questions, but feed off of being asked, and those whose favourite way of relating to a topic is sharing a story of themselves, even if it barely connects. “I have been pretty sad lately, …” “Oh yeah, I’ve been sad once, …”
Want to win or make a point: You’ve probably heard the advice, “Listen to understand, not to respond.” It’s easier to simply wait for my husband to finish his point (twirling my thumbs, la-la-la-la-laaaa) so I can start on mine, instead of clearing space in my head to listen to him with curiosity and without assuming I already know what he is going to say. Without listening, a dialogue between two people is pretty much two intertwined monologues. Both miss out on learning and being changed for the better.
Want to protect: If we think of listening well as the image of open hands ready to receive, those hands have a tendency to snap tightly closed as soon as we hear something that’s critical toward us. Ugh, this hits a little too close to home. When I perceive negative feedback from someone, it is as if the actual words become blurry, and all I hear and feel is the hurt. Listening to hear and to understand goes out the window, because all my energy is channeled to protecting myself and preparing a defence.
Want to fix: Yesterday my daughter was really sad, and she was sharing with me what was weighing her heart down. Because I hate when she is sad, my natural mothering instinct is to jump in there quickly and want to rescue her by fixing the situation or offering a solution or a happy thought. As I was holding her, I had to tell myself so hard to just be there and listen to what she wanted to say. That’s what she needed most; not for me to deny her situation or to fix it for her, but to sit in it with her for a while.
As I grow in the hard, precious, healing skill of listening, I will:
Give my full attention to others more, turning down my phone and putting aside my to-do list.
Not rush to fill all silence.
Ask thoughtful questions and cultivate a desire to get to know others more, even (or especially) those I think I already know.
Take a step back from my (really great) points and opinions and hear out the other with curiosity and without assumptions, especially when in a disagreement.
Breathe, when I hear critical or hurtful feedback and take time to calm my emotions. Then go back to the comment that was made and be interested in hearing more about it. Maybe it’s worth considering, maybe not.
Simply offer the comfort of my presence and understanding when someone shares something difficult, without jumping to fixing it or “happy-fying” it.