Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Rewards Of Really Listening

August 11, 2015

Last weekend, I had the honor of leading four workshops and one parent Q&A group at a joint church retreat in Sonoma County. It was a wonderful experience talking with new people and reconnecting with old friends.

There were some surprises (like taking almost three hours to get there when mapquest estimated 1.5 hours). Thank God that things all worked out at the end. On our way back, James took me to the beach to see Golden Gate Bridge from a distance. We got there five minutes before sunset!
Like a bridge, communication can be messy at times, especially if the conversation is going only one-way. Maybe a new perspective is needed to make your communication more effective.

Are you frustrated that no one is listening to you? Try listening better to them first.

Joanna and Cyndi are sitting at a coffee shop. Joanna has just gone through a divorce and is telling her friend all about it. To a casual observer, it looks as if Cyndi is listening. But take a look at the thoughts running through Cyndi's head: Really, people get divorced all the time; it's time to move on. It would help her if she got a job and lost some weight; that's what I'd do. I hope this never happens to me.

Cyndi thinks she's a good listener. After all, she's not interrupting or fidgeting, is she? But what Cyndi is actually doing is hearing her friend. Like so many of us, she's just not listening.

As toddlers, we learn to speak and to hear what others are saying. As we grow up, we learn to read and write, along with other useful skills. But few of us ever learn one of the most vital skills of all—how to really listen.

To really listen takes our whole attention and focus. The rewards are huge though: happier marriages and families, better communication at work, fewer misunderstandings between friends and others, calmer and less stressful lives. And another bonus: when you listen well, you become someone other people want to listen to.

Real listening can be learned. Research and books such as The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, by Michael Nichols, and Mortimer Adler's How to Speak, How to Listen agree on these key points about listening:

Anyone can learn to be a good listener. While some might be better at this skill than others, listening isn't about being educated, rich or popular. (Although being a good listener can lead to being well-liked.) Men as well as women can learn to listen, and some of the best listeners are young children who have the ability to drop everything and focus intently on something or someone.

Listening is active. Many of us think of listening as a passive act, just showing up. But real listening requires paying attention, not just to words, but body language and sometimes to what is not being said. It also means responding, not in words but with our facial expressions, head nods and exclamations ("uh huh") that show we are present.

Listening means turning off the noise inside ourselves. To listen we have to ignore all those voices inside, those judgments and criticisms... Oh, I would never have done that or He just doesn't see how he's making a big mistake. It means ignoring the urge to advise and give suggestions (unless asked) and not trying to "fix" the problem or change the other person. Most people don't want advice, solutions, criticisms or our own stories—they just want to be heard and understood.

Listening means no defenses. Often, when someone tells us something we don't want to hear, we shut down. Or we lash out or justify. True listening requires putting aside our emotional responses and the need to defend ourselves. Perhaps we believe the talker doesn't have the story right or is being unfair; that's okay because it's his story and it's not about right or wrong, fact or fiction.

Listening is unselfish. Listening takes time—and who has a lot of that? It's about ignoring distractions and the urge to interrupt with your own great story. As author Nichols puts it, "Listening isn't a need we have; it's a gift we give."

When no one is listening, our relationships get into trouble. What can you do to keep a 2-way communication channel open to and from those you care about?

"My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires." (James 1:19-20)

"We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check." (James 3:2)
Author's content used with permission, © Claire Communications

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