The Art of Listening

I had some interesting conversations over the weekend on the subject of listening. Listening is a fascinating topic, becuase we'd all probably rate ourselves as pretty good at it. And whilst we might not be those obviously bad listeners -those annoying people at parties who gaze over your shoulder in the hope of catching sight of someone more interesting, or simply glaze over and fail to react - I think that most of the world’s population isn’t very good at listening. Myself included. I think that sometimes we forget that the purpose of listening is to understand. To try and see something from someone else’s view. Because to actually do this is bloody hard work.

"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen." - Ernest Hemingway.

When proper listening happens it is thrilling. When someone gives us the gift of their undivided attention, rather than just hearing what we have to say, it is a beautiful thing. It’s beautiful because it tells us two things – they’re taking me seriously enough to listen to whatever it is I’m trying to say, and they’re prepared to place my interests and concerns ahead of theirs. At least for the moment.

Unfortunately though our brain is so clever it can do more than one thing at once. Apparently most of us speak at a rate of about one hundred and twenty five words per minute. When we think in words (and we don’t always), we are able to think at a rate of about five hundred words per minute. So that means then if we’re listening to someone speaking, we’ve got a spare thinking capacity of three hundred and seventy five words per minute. Now some of these thoughts might be really super dooper important or relevant or just way more interesting than what the speaker is saying. So chances are we might be more likely to pay attention to our thinking words than the speaker’s words.

Active, attentive listening involves a willingness and motivation to rein in those private and compelling mental meanderings before they have a chance to completely wipe out whatever is being said. Luckily for us though there’s so many other wonderful things in conversations that we can try and pay attention too – tone of voice, rate of speech, energy levels, pauses and hesitations, gestures, facial expressions, body language etc. It’s not just about the words when we listen people. It’s the whole package.

But by far the single biggest problem we face when we are listening to another person is the bundle of stuff we bring to the encounter. All of our previous experiences, all our beliefs, attitudes and prejudices come with us and act like lenses through which we see the communication process. No one is a blank slate waiting to receive a message; we are active participants in the encounter and we will inevitable try to interpret what we’re hearing in the light of what we already know or think. So with any listening we do, we are in fact part of the view.

To listen actively and attentively and fully to another person means that we are then putting our existing beliefs and dispositions at risk. It is possible that as a result of really hearing what they have to say we will be asking ourselves: What if this person is right? What if I have to change my mind? What if I have no answer for this?

“If you really understand another person … if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, without any attempt to make evaluative judgments, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you ,might find yourself influenced in your attitudes … The risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us face.” - Carl Rogers.

As a psychologist, I think the process of entering the client’s world is a fundamental component of therapy. And this is purely based on active, committed listening. This happens when the speaker feels truly valued, respected and taken seriously. It happens when they realise we are prepared to put our own preoccupations and ideas on hold and to entertain theirs. That’s listening. Anything else is hearing.

Listening takes courage. Because we have to take a step away from the safety of our own world view - our own beliefs, attitudes and judgments – and see what the world view of another look’s like. But when we listen to another person, we offer them the gift of undivided attention, the gift of our increased understanding of them and most importantly, the gift of taking them seriously. Generous and beautiful stuff.

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” - Ralph Nichols.

It’s easy to get impatient with listening though. I do this all the time, particularly when I'm excited. Often I’ll get so enthusiastic about the content of the conversation or feel I have something so incredibly smart/funny/extraordinary to add that I jump in as soon as there’s a small break in the conversation. But it generally means I haven’t been listening properly and have been attending to other things. And not to listen to someone is pretty much the equivalent of saying - You don’t matter. To listen to someone means devoting time to the process and putting your own concerns on hold.

I realise we can’t all be expected to be patient, attentive and generous listeners to everybody all the time. But the more we do listen to each other the more we can discover and develop common ground and connections with each other. And we are all capable to developing the skills to provide one of the most important but simple gifts to those around us. The gift of letting them know they matter.

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