A recent unscientific poll of friends who responded to my Facebook request confirms what hasn’t changed since I started teaching communication in 1982: Listening is the interpersonal skill they’d most like to learn, relearn, or practice.
For years, my listening skills programs attracted the most clients. Most course participants appeared to be attentive, or perhaps they were simply being polite. They were not attached to electronic gadgets as I was speaking, although there were other distractions. Today, I’m amazed at the lack of eye contact in classrooms and across dinner tables. I’m as guilty as anyone, often gazing at my iPhone or laptop.
Didn’t I used to look at faces more often (or respond to voices on the phone)? In 2015, I love how we can “connect” with anyone, any time, but it may be more difficult than ever to listen and connect in deeper ways.
It has never been easy for many (or most) of us to hear, understand or receive information from others, especially when we anticipate or focus on differences. Yet we must listen to learn, love, live and work well with diverse people. In an increasingly cluttered, noisy world of information overload, it’s important to acknowledge internal and external barriers to listening. It’s hard work!
Every ping, tweet, to-do and distraction interrupts or attracts, competing with another human being requesting attention. It takes time, patience and energy to be present for someone who may not speak quickly, clearly, or cleverly enough to suit us.
When it really counts, and in helping professions or roles (counseling, teaching, health care, ministry, parenting) we want to listen with compassion and empathy. While our hearts may be in the right place, we struggle to slow down minds racing in many directions. Fortunately, we prevail, because we know listening matters. We mess up, and we try again.
So what have I learned in decades of study and practice? Theory and research has informed my listening knowledge, but humbling experiences, more than anything, have deepened my understanding of the perpetually perplexing question: Why is it so challenging to connect with one another?
My intention is to share what I’ve found helpful and to offer reassurance if you’re lacking as a listener (welcome to the club). I’d like fellow intrepid communicators to know they’re not alone.
Here’s a short list of guidance for the challenging listening journey:
- Any listening advice may work with some people, some of the time. There are no guarantees, and the best communicators explore multiple paths to understanding.
- Listening skills develop through self awareness, vulnerability, courage and challenging (even painful) learning experiences. Seek and reflect on feedback from trustworthy sources if you want to know how you’re perceived as a listener.
- There is no shortcut to effective listening. A well-meaning soul, course, or book promising to “transform your communication” through “mastering conversations” or a few simple tips is likely to disappoint. The road to better listening features lots of trial, error, reflection and practice (unless you are a rare, fortunate, saint-like being who can bypass life’s potholes)!
- Accomplished listeners stumble at times, and many “experts,” including communication scholars charged with training graduate students, are poor listeners, although they should know better. I’m a skillful, deep listener in my professional life, but ask loved ones about my meandering speaking style, or tendency to interrupt and finish their sentences, and you’ll hear about how I may improve!
- To practice mindful listening, take a deep breath… pause… and consider your intention. What options are available here and now? In what direction would you like the conversation to go? Be present, instead of pondering the past or worrying about the future. Advice about safely crossing a street applies to your encounter: STOP (what you were doing or thinking), LOOK (at the speaker, focusing on the immediate situation) and LISTEN.
- You can’t control what or how another communicates, but you can decide how to interpret or respond. Also, you may choose how much listening time and energy is appropriate in this moment, with this person. It’s unrealistic and exhausting to listen deeply all the time. Sometimes, surface level “hearing” is sufficient.
Want to know more? I will offer a course in the Research Triangle, North Carolina area soon, and I’m available to anyone, anywhere for coaching, customized training, or consultation. I welcome your questions and comments.