I was sitting in the small sunroom on the back of our 1960s ranch this past month. The sun was warm, but the snow had piled up above the seats of our backyard furniture, and I was reminded sadly that the sights and sounds of summer were still far away. I took a breath and looked around the snow-covered yard. I was surprised by what sounded like the chirping of a bird. I couldn't see the little creature and almost couldn't believe my ears, but he or she was definitely there, sharing a short, familiar song.
In that moment, the power of listening was palpable. It delivered an unexpected gift on that cold winter day, like it does almost every time I am reminded to truly listen. From the time we are infants, we are taught to talk, to form words and speak up for ourselves. However, I can't remember ever being taught to listen. We're instructed not to speak out of turn and not to speak too loudly. During dinners out when our daughters were little, we coined the phrase, "Use your restaurant voice" to help them remember their manners. I think of myself as a good mother, specifically because my daughters have grown up to be kind, smart, funny and engaging. However, I look back and realize I taught them how to "be quiet" when appropriate, but I never taught them how to listen. Perhaps that is because I wasn't taught about the importance of truly listening until I was in my forties.
Listening is, perhaps, the most important thing we can ever teach. It is medicine, pure and simple. I learned this through a women's center in Milford, Massachusetts, starting in 1999. I continue to share the magic of this message today with women in Maine at an organization called Authentic Women Circle, which is the legacy of that Massachusetts group.
There is so much noise in our world today capable of drowning out the sound of one human voice. The exchanges on television, radio and online are rushed and filled with cross talk like never before. The media "experts" give advice and their perspective on every topic imaginable. Everyone is talking and few actually pay attention. Sometimes it appears that the only people who listen are those who are paid to do so. The art of listening, true listening with rapt attention and an open heart, is in danger of extinction.
I come from a long lineage of talkers. Sometimes it appeared that he or she who spoke loudest in my family must be the smartest. Cross talk at family gatherings was an Olympic sport. If you could be the last talker standing, then your point must be truth.
My father was a charismatic orator, giving sales pitches, business keynotes and team-inspiring pep talks that won him loyal followers. However, as I got older, I realized that his true genius was in listening at key moments, like when I had a disagreement with a friend at school or when I struggled with the news from my obstetrician that my baby might have a birth defect. Even as he carefully consumed the news that my sister was dying, he didn't try to fix anything; he simply asked clarifying questions and listened completely to the answers. Through the lens of my more recent experience, I now think that perhaps it wasn't his words that earned him fans in family affairs and business, but rather his ability to sit and listen without interruption when there was a challenge or issue at hand. When he listened, he really listened.
In hopes that you can capture the magic in your own life, I offer you here a short introduction to the art of listening. While these points seem so simple, I ask you to observe yourself and those around you to see how often they are employed and how embracing them makes a huge difference in communication, relationships and stress levels.
Complete listening requires that one person speak at a time. Simple enough, right? Do a little exercise over the next 24 hours and watch (or listen) to how many times people are talking at the same time as each other. We so want to agree with a friend that we finish her sentence. We want our colleague to know we understand what he is explaining so we interrupt with, "I totally agree." We want a child to correct an action, so before he or she completes another sentence, we offer, "Eh, eh, eh, let's try to do it this way." I'm guilty of all of these at one time or another.
Sounds harmless, right? We have good intentions. We mean no harm. We politely offer our thought or correction. Yet, every time we cut someone off, interrupt their thought, we are saying that our thoughts and words are more valid than what they have to say.
True listening doesn't anticipate the next word. It is patient. True listening allows the speaker to totally complete the thought before commenting or answering.
True listening requires that we pay complete attention. We think we are super human and we can peel a potato, send a text or wash the car while completely listening. It's virtually impossible. We can multi-task, for sure, and in today's world moving at its extraordinary pace, we may think that we have to, but we will not be doing any of the tasks fully. When someone is communicating something they feel is important, we need to put down the phone, shut off the computer, stop dicing the onion and completely listen. What a gift we give another person when we do this. This very act of focusing on the speaker makes him or her feel worthy. It's magical what real listening can do.
The art of listening also requires that we allow the speaker to own the story. We've been taught to commiserate, empathize, agree. "I had that happen to me. I know how you feel. Here's what I did." However, none of us share the exact same experience. None of us has actually experienced that person's situation in the exact same way they did. The magic of listening happens when we pay complete attention and let the speaker know we are there for them. We let them speak.
This is hard for me even now, after years of understanding the benefits of true listening. I've been trained since I was young to offer help, empathy, kindness. I want the other person to know they are not alone. Yet, the most powerful exchanges come from showing your concern by asking the speaker a question. "How do you think you might proceed?" or "What would you like to happen next?" When you ask a gentle question like this, you show the speaker that she has the answers. You help validate her feelings and let her know that she is worthy.
As I write this, I can think of several times recently when I have not followed these guidelines when communicating with a family member or client and, in hindsight, the communication could have been more successful if I had. We are so trained to share our opinion, give advice, jump in to agree. As a result, this simple, yet powerful prescription for the art of listening is often forgotten.
I believe the importance of complete listening is one of the most important lessons I have learned (and continue to learn) in my life. It changes everything. When you truly listen, it takes away the burden of always having to have the answer. We don't have the answer for another person. We never will. Only they have the answer. By offering questions, you show that you have been listening and that you want to help. That is enough.
Complete listening also gives the speaker the power to find the right answer. Our listening and questioning helps to assure the speaker that he or she is valuable, smart and can find the answer that will work for them.
By emptying your mind of your own thoughts and distractions, you open yourself to truly connecting with the speaker on a different level. I find that when I really do this, and give myself over to being totally present with the speaker, it is not only a gift for him or her; it is a gift for me. What a pleasure to receive their thoughts without trying to change them, analyze them or create an answer.
The exchange is just a little bit like having all of the sounds around wash over us, and then experiencing the unexpected. The sweet song of that little winter bird. True listening makes magic happen.