In today’s world of disconnection, multi-tasking, and distraction, the art of listening is very important. Listening is our access to understanding. We are constantly being bombarded with information from emails, phones and the media, which can lessen our capacity for concentration and contemplation. We pay less attention to the subtle, the understated and the quiet. Few of us were taught “good” listening, the kind of listening that helps us examine and challenge the information we hear and thereby improve our decision-making. Breakdowns in communication occur often and usually lead to a wide range of social problems. Listening is the foundation of good communication and brings us closer to one another.
One of the keys to emotional intelligence is to be a generous listener. Some people are naturally inclined to be better listeners than others. They seem to be a minority in a noisy world. Stephen Covey said,
People don’t listen to understand. They listen to reply. The collective monologue is everyone talking and no one listening.
We have all experienced being with a good listener. We know who they are because we feel good after having spent time with them. A dear friend of mine will finish what she’s doing, turn towards you, and everything about her body language, gaze, and intent leaves no doubt in your mind that you have her undivided attention. It’s a very powerful feeling to be listened to in this way.
Being a good listener doesn’t mean simply being quiet whilst another is speaking (although that is an excellent start). It also means not getting distracted whilst listening to someone. We often only listen until a certain point, because we’ve already formulated in our mind our reply to something they’ve just said. They might have used words that trigger negative emotions within us, or have said something we disagree with, and the rest of the conversation goes unheard. When this happens, we could very well be missing an opportunity to receive valuable information. When we truly listen, we can even understand what are behind the words being spoken. Self-censorship means there’s a lot that we avoid saying in order not to annoy or offend others. People often are communicating a much bigger message by what they’re not saying. Respectful questions at certain points in a conversation can help it flow along, and assists us in avoiding making assumptions about what the person is saying. Paraphrasing what you heard can be a good way of clarifying what you understood. Listening whole-heartedly requires a genuine desire to connect with another.
Present, uninterrupted listening can be very healing. Image: Priscilla Du Preez
Listening is Love
Patty Wipfler is the founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, helping parents to connect with and listen to their children’s feelings. When a child feels connected, your care and attention give their brain the signal that it is safe to grow and learn. Your love and attention possess the power to build your child’s intelligence. Listening to feelings can mend deep rifts between parent and child.
Parents need the same kind of support. As a way to help parents to care more effectively for themselves and their families, Patty encourages parents to have a listening partnership, an agreement between two people to take turns in listening. The basis for this partnership is that each listener acts upon the generous assumption that “each person is deeply loving and intelligent by nature, and each person is the real expert on his or her own affairs.” This respect offered to one another will help build your confidence in your own innate intelligence and caring. Early childhood educator and parent coach Liz May offers this simple tip to parents: “Stop talking about your children in a negative way, remember that they are always listening.”
By becoming a better listener, we might find that we become more aware of how we speak to ourselves. What do we tell ourselves about ourselves? What do we tell other people about us? Listening to ourselves can be truly transformative. It can be a spiritual practice, going into silence to hear our deepest truth. Every spiritual path has listening and contemplation at its heart.
A reporter once asked Mother Teresa what she said during her prayers. She replied, “I listen”. The reporter then asked, “Well then, what does God say?” Mother Teresa answered with a smile, “God listens”.