Sorry, what were you saying?
Do you ever feeling like your partner isn’t really listening to you? Maybe it’s the glazed-over expression on his face that raises suspicion, or the fact that he keeps glancing behind you toward the television in the corner of the bar – or maybe he jumps in with something to say as soon as you pause even the slightest bit, making it’s clear he’s just chomping at the bit to share the brilliant bits of wisdom he’s composing in his head while you’re talking.
If we’re really honest though, most of us are guilty of these exact same behaviors. Listening is a skill; it’s not innate. And the sad truth is, most of us don’t really know how to do it. This lack of listening skills doesn’t just contribute to the breakup of romantic relationships and marriages, it deteriorates the quality of all the relationships in our lives: the ones we have with our parents and siblings, our bosses and co-workers, and our friends.
Learning how to listen might be the single best thing you can do for yourself, your relationships, and for everyone you come into contact with in your day-to-day life. Here’s how to do it…
Can you hear me now?
There are two kinds of listening. First, there’s regular old listening, where you’re tuning in and out, paying attention to your own thoughts, and thinking of what you’re going to say next. This is what most of us do, most of the time (admit it; it’s true). Then there’s active listening. Active listening is different from regular listening, because you’re actually engaging with the other person, stepping outside yourself, and making an effort to make the other person feel truly heard and understood.
The actor Alan Alda once said, “Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.” Active listening allows that magic to happen.
It’s not about you
When you’re actively listening to someone, you’re more interested in what they’re saying to you than in what they think of you. That means you’re not sitting there composing the next witty thing you’re going to say, or thinking about whether you look cute with your brow wrinkled just so, in your carefully practiced expression of sincere concern.
So give your full attention to the person who’s talking to you, and forget about yourself for a while. It might actually be a relief. And keep in mind the words of writer Doug Larson, who said, “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.”
Curiosity is a good thing
Yeah, yeah – curiosity killed the cat. Your parents may have told you that when you were growing up, probably in order to shut you up when you were being annoying or nosy. But in fact, it’s good to be curious about other people. Ask them questions; people love to talk about themselves. And get specific. Don’t just ask how their day was – ask how they feel about that huge new project they got assigned, or whether anyone commented on their cute new haircut.
Basically, ask questions that show you know what’s going on in their life, and that might open up a larger conversation. And then actually pay attention to their answers.
There’s no agenda
With active listening, you’re not trying to give advice, solve anyone’s problems, or direct the conversation to a specific conclusion. You’re just open to whatever the other person is saying, letting them work things out for themselves, and giving them the gift of your presence. If they are in emotional pain, you can be the most helpful simply by bearing witness to that pain and sitting quietly with them. If they ask you for advice, you can offer – but most of the time, people don’t really want advice. They just want to be heard.
This kind of listening is not easy. It can be draining, especially if you’re having conflict with someone, or you’re spending a lot of time with someone who’s going through a difficult time. If you struggle with anxiety or depression yourself, you may want to be mindful about how much time you spend engaged in active listening. Take care of yourself, and remember that you need people to listen to you, too! Don’t get stuck in relationships where you’re giving too much and doing all the work.
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Comment: Do you think you’re a good listener?