Five years ago, I realized that I was a terrible listener. When I communicated with other people, I unconsciously waited for my turn to speak. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even wait for them to finish. I would unapologetically interrupt them and rush to my personal story or idea. Long story short it was all about me.
As you can imagine, when you are a lousy listener, many people will return the favor, with a few exceptions who are naturally good listeners. Compared to those “naturals", I have been consciously trying to become a better listener to this day, using a practice that you will find at the end of the story.
Sooner or later, I discovered that nourishing a relationship without the proper communication skills will lead to a dead end.
Most people, when they want to develop their communication skills, focus first on speech. People tend to believe that being a smooth talker is the pinnacle of forming relationships. The reality is far from it. Based on the Journal of research in personality, listening skills pose a much more significant factor than talking skills.
“Expressive communication has received the lion’s share of attention in leadership, but receptive behavior matters, too”- Daniel Ames, Columbia University
You can think about it yourself…
What kind of people do you trust most? Is it those who usually listen to you patiently or those who know their way with words and typically have control of the conversation? It is quite clear that, regardless how smooth of a talker you are, listening carefully is more important when it comes to quality relationships. And by listening carefully, I’m not referring only to the literal part of taking in sounds.
The listener’s invisible weapon: Body language reading
All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many roles. — Shakespeare
Hearing people when they speak while you are impatiently waiting for your turn diminishes not only your influence but also your ability to read their body-language hence their true interests, moods and maybe wishes. People are so good at playing roles and wearing masks that they might forget they engage in that process.
Most of us are at least competent to project a certain aspect of our personality that suits the corresponding social situation but something almost always leaks through to betray our actual thoughts. A supposed friend might say that she enjoys our company while she directs her legs at the exit.
A colleague says he is happy about the raise you received, even though when you announced the news, he was stunned for 2 seconds and then smiled only using the mouth’s muscles. When you don’t bother to notice the body language as well as the verbal cues, the chances are that you will be entangled in frustrating relationships.
Why do most people fail to pay attention and focus on listening skills?
THIS IS WHY I loved the support groups so much, if people thought you were dying, they gave you their full attention. — Tyler Durden, from the book Fight Club
Tyler Durden was a regular visitor at tons of support groups. People who participated in those groups suffered either from cancer or some other kind of terminal disease. Some of them won’t make it through the week. When they talked to each other, they deeply listened because this might be the last day they met.
“If this might be the last time they saw you, they really saw you. Everything else about their checkbook balance and radio songs and messy hair went out the window. You had their full attention. People listened instead of just waiting their turn to speak” — Tyler Durden, from the book Fight Club
Imagine that you are talking to a friend who will die in about a month. Would you be self-absorbed to such an extent that you would listen only waiting for your turn to speak? Or will you do your best to grasp every word that comes out of his mouth? I bet that you’d do the latter.
Two times I’ve found myself in the second predicament,one with my grandfather and one with my uncle. Every time I’d talk with them, I wouldn’t let a word slip off. When you know that a person’s death is imminent, you don’t care about yourself or your problems. What matters is that simple and yet full of power moment of presence.
One hour earlier you could be with your friends drinking coffee and not paying attention to what they said, and now you’ re next to a person who’s dying and suddenly you transformed into a great listener.
What’s happening here and what does good listening have to do with death?
Based on that behavior, we can come up with two scenarios:
1) Your friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances have found the philosopher’s stone and attained eternal life.
2) You neglect the fact that everyone you know someday will die.
Seeing the first scenario as both awesome and implausible, we conclude to the following:
Most humans are terrified of death and don’t want to put much thought into it. I acknowledge death and at the same time, avoid it, at least mentally. I think to myself “I am 27, I got time” or so I thought until a few days ago I went to visit my uncle’s grave.
When you pass among them, you can recognize the new ones in an instant. As I walked past several graves on my way to my uncle’s body, one white marble grave, caught my eye. It was a guy in a chef’s uniform, with tattoos in his hands, holding a pointy chef’s knife. He died eight months ago at the age of 26.
“Did this guy know that he was going to die?” I thought, “Is it possible that I could die sooner than I think?”
Regardless of how we can shape a big portion of the earth to our needs and numerous technological and medical achievements, we can’t cheat death. Death is a certainty all people share. Regardless of our social status, economic background or political power, one day, our existence will come to an end.
All the people we know will die someday, and we will be filled with pain, missing them deeply. This realization shows that each person is unique and worth listening to while they are still with us. If we could clearly see this predicament, I wager that we all could become better listeners than neglecting this inevitable end.
Could it be that we are not good listeners because we turn our back to the uncomfortable yet unavoidable aspect of death? Is it possible that if we change our perspective about death, there is a greater chance of improving our listening skills?
A meditation to realize death and become a better listener
Our lives are filled with distractions, from notifications of click-bait news articles and social media popping up every 5 minutes to entertainment programs and video games.
Unpredictability and Oversimplification. Two deadly arrows in media’s quiver to induce mass panic.
in time of a pandemic
In this environment, the ability to focus on a simple task for even one hour becomes challenging, even more so when it comes to complicated abstract subjects like the inevitability of your death.
Robert Greene, in his book “The Laws of Human Nature”, prompts us to imagine the death of our family, close friends and colleagues to see how it can change the way we see the world. He goes a step further and suggests to, while we are outside talking a walk, deeply consider the fact that in 90 years most of the people around us will be dead.
You can mix Greene’s practice with the chapter of the book “Meditations for a New Earth” titled “Walking Meditation”. In this chapter, Kim Eng guides you through a walking meditation for approximately 11 minutes. There are tons of meditation techniques, but I genuinely enjoy this one because it involves the most common habit of human beings, walking.
After this time-span of guided meditation, chances are you’ll be more conscious compared to the rest of your day. Consider this state of stillness the fertile ground to practice Robert Greene’s idea, and as you walk, take good a look. Realize that everyone you lay your eyes upon has a limited time.
Death realization and listening skills
If we refuse to face death, we won’t be able to fully grasp the limited time we have with each other and the uniqueness of each person that surrounds us. When we fail to grasp that concept, we become self-absorbed, thinking only about ourselves and what we have to say, we come out as terrible listeners. Nevertheless, we can take a break from our busy lives and meditate to impermanence and death to enhance our listening skills.