“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Steven Covey, Author of: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
What is Good Listening?
I used to think that being a good listener meant not interrupting, staying silent while the other person talked. I wasn’t sure if I was a good listener, though people often said I was. Then several years ago, during some counselling training, I took part in an exercise which including listening silently while a partner talked for five minutes
Many people found staying silent difficult, but for me the hardest part was when it was my turn to talk. Speaking for five minutes with no feedback felt disconcerting – and in fact, we were taught to make comments such as, “Yes,” or “Mmm,” when there was a natural lull, rather than stay completely silent.
Many people believe, as I did, that to be a Good Listener we should be silent, not interrupt, really pay attention to the other person. In many ways this is preferable to interrupting and to the type of listening in which we are really just waiting for “our turn” and only hearing half of what the other person says.
Why we interrupt
Sometimes we stop people speaking because we think we know what they are about to say and we don’t want to hear it, or because we think we know better. The comedy series Frazier made good use of this trait, with Frazier getting into several messes because he stopped someone else from talking – usually his uneducated dad, who couldn’t possibly know stuff. But it’s not always funny when we do this; it can be painful and disconnecting.
In her book, I Need Your Love – Is That True?, Byron Katie suggests we pay attention to when we interrupt people, and silently say to ourselves: “I’m not letting you finish the sentence because…”
She also lists some things people discovered when they did this exercise. Here are a few:
“…I already know where you are going, and I have something more clever to say.”
“… I might forget what I have to say and lose this opportunity to impress you.”
“…you’re having such a hard time expressing yourself, I’m going to rescue you by saying it better.”
Pretending to Listen
Often, we pretend to be listening to someone speak when in fact, we are listening to the thoughts inside our own minds. Then, instead of being honest and admitting we haven’t heard, we try to cover up. I sometimes explore this when writing fiction. Below is an example, a scene from my novel Drawings In Sand. Stella is in a meeting, but has had such a fraught day her mind is still on that, rather than on what her colleagues say.
Stella has no idea what she’s agreed to. Not interrupting and paying attention does at least stop this kind of confusion, and means we are less at risk of making huge mistakes like Frazier does.
Byron Katie suggests that we experiment with true listening – stop interrupting and listen to what our children, spouses, friends or colleagues have to say. She writes: Your understanding of another person is limited by what you think you already know. So when you just listen, the person won’t match your preconception. The exciting thing is that you usually meet someone much wiser and kinder than you expected.
She also says self-perception may change. You become a true listener, an open and genuinely interested person. It’s hard not to be interested when people keep surprising you and showing that they have more to offer than you expected.
Your understanding of a person is limited by what you think you know. ~ Byron Katie Tweet
Losing Ourselves when Listening
Occasionally, something weird happens when we listen to other people – we forget to listen to ourselves. I know I’m not alone in sometimes feeling as if I’ve forgotten myself when I’ve been listening fully to someone else – particularly if that person is going through a hard time. This type of listening generally leaves us feeling exhausted and frazzled afterwards – because we have been ignoring our own needs in an attempt to meet someone else’s.
There is another way to listen, one that includes listening to the other person and to yourself; a way that says you matter equally. Ironically, to do this, we let go of ideas of “them” and “me.” We also need to let go, as much as possible, of judging what we hear or perceive – and instead just observe.
This is how it goes:
Imagine we are having a conversation and I am listening while you talk. While I listen to you, I also check in with me. I notice my thoughts about what you say and I notice the sensations in my body. I let the thoughts come and go, and I know that they aren’t The Truth, but just stuff floating through my head.
So if, for instance, a thought comes, “This is boring,” I have choice. I can believe that thought, and interrupt you, or I can notice that when I have the thought, “This is boring,” I feel restless and want to change what is happening. I can consider what it might be like to listen without that thought. I might even realise that observing my reactions and thoughts is quite interesting in itself! And so, I stop feeling restless and become willing to hear what you say, instead of judging it before I’ve heard it.
I’ll be honest– sometimes I do this type of listening, and sometimes I forget. But when I remember, life is much more enjoyable.
When we listening mindfully, the other person matters, and so do we.Tweet