“Are you listening?” That was a pretty reasonable question to ask my 94 year old father who hated his hearing aids. But when that question is asked of you, it’s time to either check your hearing— or your interest. Not gonna lie – I’ve been guilty as charged many times of being a less than stellar listener, as my daughter would confirm. In my defense, I’m usually hypnotized by two crazy cute grandsons. Still, from time to time, listening is an art-form that we can all use a refresher course in.
Everyone has a story to tell. A story that’s unique and personal to each of us. Sometimes it takes the form of seemingly mundane rants about things that make up daily life. And sometimes it’s about what runs deep beneath the words. But when we express our fears, our confusion, our needs, those words can help us reach a new level of understanding — and entrance into someone’s emotional lock-box. Our reception of the words shows respect and support; the trust it confers in response is priceless.
There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing. G.K. Chesterton
Too often the daily detritus, those things that stroll around in your mind, plop down, completely uninvited, into the midst of a conversation. And it’s not pretty. One day, a few years ago, one of my besties called me on it. Busted. To be fair, I was in the midst of a design project when she called, but it was no excuse for being half-present to her. After apologizing, I proposed a fix that I’ve adhered to ever since; something that’s helped ensure our 40 year friendship. If I’m busy when she calls, I fess up and ask if I can call her back when I can give her my full attention. Both of us are heard; both of us are seen.
“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” M. Scott Peck
Really listening is one of the best gifts we can give each other. When people really listen acutely to another, when you see their essence as well as what they are trying to convey, it is a powerful moment. And one that is priceless to every one of us humans.
My husband and I sat, side by side on the couch most every night, each engrossed in whatever we were doing. Somehow, whatever they hell we were doing doesn’t seem very important now since he’s no longer here on that couch with me. But back in the day, smack in the middle of writing bills or reading an article, my chatty guy would begin a story. Soon I’d hear “Are you listening” and though my answer was ‘yes’, it was more of a ‘maybe’. To be fair, he often did the same. Often, not long after words left my mouth, he’d remark, as author Joyce Maynard recalled in her memoir The Best of Us that her husband would say — ‘cut to the chase’. Oh, I hear you, Joyce! Like nails on a blackboard, those dismissive words ticked me off big time. No matter who the culprit, the end result impatient listening is the same; hurt feelings and lost opportunities.
Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey
Each person comes to this planet equipped with fears, struggles, hopes and thoughts that no one can ever know unless they choose to share them. Everyone is independently owned and operated and we have stories that are unique to us. If we don’t accept the invitation to walk through a door cracked open to another, we will lose a precious chance to expand, instead stay forever locked within our own version of the world. And, somehow, I don’t think I’d be all that happy there.
“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self”. Dean Jackson
Without realizing it, we’ve become skilled at selective listening. We accuse our kids of cherry picking our directives yet our attachment to Twitter and Facebook often trumps full on listening to them. To be fair, listening is hard. We aren’t always going to get it right. We have too many judgements, and things on our to-do list. Listening takes practice, and maybe a good dose of really caring, too. It was hard to stay focused when my father told me the same story over and over, one I’ve heard through the years. But now that he, too, is not longer here, some of those repeated stories will be the stuff of Ancestry.com family lore for the next generations.
Newsflash! Everyone can brush up on their listening skills. Here are a few tips that might help:
- Body language. If your eyes are on your phone instead of the person in front of you, you’ll miss the good stuff. The emotions seen in someone’s expressions signal what’s behind their words. Don’t blow your opportunity to listen with your eyes as well as your ears.
- Be present. If you focus on your response instead of what the person is saying, you’ll miss a whole lot in between.
- Don’t interrupt. We don’t always know where the other person is going with their story. Don’t second guess. You’re not their Google map.
- Stay focused. I’m a great multitasker but those skills don’t always serve me well in the listening department. Oops.
- Be specific. When people wade through deep loss or illness, it’s more caring and helpful to ask ‘how are you today’ instead of just ‘how are you?’. Life is fluid.
One of the suckiest things about being a widow is realizing the person who listened to you, who ‘saw’ you, as you saw them — is gone forever. The onorous weight of silence incites you to talk out loud to yourself just to know you still have a voice. Instead of your ‘other’, there’s only crickets. You even yearn for those word salads that once drove you nuts! Now, that husband or wife who talked incessantly is the exactly who you want to hear more than anything. Okay, maybe not the incessant part but you know what I mean. We all need human contact and while we don’t always have the right words, listening with our whole heart will always be right. Our words might not make a defining difference but our listening might and that’s a start.
“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” David W. Augsburger
To all my friends, who have listened unendingly to me in this lifetime, who’ve ‘seen’ me and loved me, thank you. (props to you for your crazy patience!) I promise to expand my listening so that you each always feel heard as well. You deserve that and more. And to all those I haven’t yet met, those I’ve known and have not heard as well as I should, who read my blog and have stories of your own, you can trust me to listen with an open heart.
No matter how we think we know everything about another person – we don’t. There’s always more to know and being entrusted with those precious pieces is a gift. Life, as we know, is too damn short to cut corners on each other.
Use your words. Listen to theirs.