Reclaiming the Lost Art of Listening

When was the last time that you were listened to? Deeply, openly, honestly listened to? When was the last time that you actually listened to someone else?

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

When was the last time that you were listened to? Deeply, openly, honestly listened to?

When was the last time that you actually listened to someone else?

If you’re like most people, the answer to both of those questions is that it’s been a while… maybe years even. Perhaps, maybe never.

It seems that everyone just wants to be listened to these days. We want to be understood. We want people to know our point of view. We want to tell our stories. We want to influence and change how people are viewing things, and how we are all interacting with each other. If only people would just listen.

This mostly likely defines every conflict in every relationship that you have: friends, family, work, and intimate partnerships. It also defines every group that currently graces the news today, arguing for change of some kind or another. People fighting for racial equality, gender equality, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, tax reform, education reform, immigration reform, gun reform, whatever kind of reform you can think of. It seems everyone is part of at least one group fighting for recognition that their subset group of people could be treated better. And everyone just wants to be listened to.

We all want to be heard, and it’s not just to feed our egos. For most people, there is a strong feeling underneath this need to be heard that if we were just listened to, and understood, things would change. People’s actions would be different. Things would be better. Everyone would be able to (finally) just get along.

The problem is that everyone wants to be listened to… but nobody wants to listen.

Most people don’t even know how.

Listening is becoming a lost art form. It is exceptionally rare to be listened to, or to listen to anyone.

And yet… It is potentially the most important thing that you can do today. It is the most powerful tool that you have, that you probably don’t even realize you possess.

Listening could change every single one of your relationships. Listening could change the world.

But we don’t. Why?

What is Listening?

Listening is defined as to “give one’s attention to a sound,” or, perhaps more applicable to the way we listen these days, to “take notice of and act on what someone says; respond to advice or a request.”

This is the perfect definition of the type of listening that we do so often today. We put our attention to the sounds that are coming from someone with the intention of finding a way to act on what they say. We concentrate on how to respond to them. Sometimes we concentrate on what we think they need; sometimes we concentrate on what to say in response.

What we don’t seem to concentrate on is actually listening to what is and what is not present in what someone is saying. We don’t concentrate on the message being given to us. We don’t get curious and ask questions.

We don’t listen to understand. We listen to react.

We make assumptions. We make judgments. We jump to conclusions. And then we argue against a conversation that often didn’t even happen.

This is how we are taught to listen. It’s literally how listening is defined in the dictionary.

The problem is that putting your attention to someone’s words with the intention to react instead of to understand or just be present isn’t helpful.

It’s not helpful, and it’s also not really listening, at all.

Listening in this way is more like preparing for a potential battle.

Is it then surprising that so many conversations end up in misunderstandings, conflict, and hurt feelings?

I have a friend who hates the term “holding space.” It triggers him. Mostly, we argue because we just like to argue with each other, but sometimes I slip up and use the term in front of him, and the arguments turn serious.

“Why can’t you just say listening?” he’ll ask. “It’s the same thing.”

“Because,” I always reply, “it’s not.

I don’t want to be listened to the way most people listen. Sometimes I want to be actually listened to, in the purest way possible.

I want to be understood and heard, without someone responding with advice, or argument, or a story of how what I just said reminds them of some time in their own life.

We don’t really do that kind of listening anymore.

Hell, we don’t really do any kind of listening, anymore.

This is why I ask people to “hold space.” Because to ask someone to listen generally means to ask someone to shut up while you talk, until they are able to respond.

Listening is a lost art.

It’s so lost that we’ve had to make up new terms to use when we want someone to actually listen.

A Different Way to Listen

Listening is an art form, a skill you can practice. It is something you can be exceptional at or fail at miserably each time you try.

But before we can talk about how to practice this skill and get better at listening, we have to first redefine the concept.

In 1987, Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term “active listening” as a way to talk about a type of listening that in and of itself could bring about change and create stronger relationships with counseling patients. It is a simple yet powerful shift in the way we think about listening.

Active listening is defined as “the act of mindfully hearing and attempting to comprehend the meaning of words spoken by another in a conversation or speech.” It is listening in it’s purest form. The point of active listening is to just… listen.

What is the person in front of you trying to tell you? What are they trying to express? 
 When we are active listening, we are concentrating solely on the person in front of us, not distracted by multitasking, physically or mentally. We are not thinking about what we are going to say in response, or making assumptions about what the person is going to say next or what they actually mean that they aren’t saying. When there is confusion or lack of clarity in what the person means, we ask questions in order to understand.

Active listening means keeping an open mind. It is the act of truly attempting to get into another person’s world in order to understand them.

But… Why bother? What does listening actually get us?

A lot, it turns out.

We all just want to be listened to, to be understood. And when a person feels like those needs are being met, they are less defensive, more relaxed, and more able to listen in return.

Listening opens the door for understanding, and for cooperation.

“Listening brings about changes in peoples’ attitudes toward themselves and others; it also brings about changes in their basic values and personal philosophy. People who have been listened to in this new and special way become more emotionally mature, more open to their experiences, less defensive, more democratic, and less authoritarian.” - Rogers and Farson

It is the secret weapon that we all walk around with and never use, complaining instead that nobody listens to us, that we are so misunderstood.

Becoming a Better Listener

Seek to Understand First, Then to Be Understood

The number one reason we don’t listen to other people is because we don’t feel like we are being listened to. We want to be understood more than we want to understand, and in the face of feeling misunderstood, it feels unfair to be asked to put aside our own feelings and be the first to listen. Why should we have to listen to someone who isn’t listening to us?

I get it. It sucks. Being the first to set aside the argument and attempt to understand someone, to truly listen, is a tough thing to do. It feels like a bitter pill to swallow.

But it’s also the most important. Someone has to take the first step. Someone has to be the bigger person. This is an invitation for you to be that someone.

Seeking to understand someone before we seek to be understood is the ultimate in going high when they go low, but it’s not just about being the bigger person. Once we get over the blow to our egos, it’s a win win situation.

Once someone is understood, they are less defensive and more open. They are more compassionate. They are more able to listen.

Seeking to understand and then to be understood is a game-changer. By simply listening to someone, you are lowering their defenses and modeling the behavior that will, more often than not, directly lead to what you most want. You actively create a space where you can then be understood and listened to in return.

Ask Questions

Commit these two phrases to memory:

“What do you mean by that?”

“I’m not sure I understand. Can you tell me more about that?”

Repeat them. Again and again and again.

Don’t assume that you know what a person means. Don’t assume anything. Ask questions and keep an open mind. Get curious. We like to pretend that things are black and white, that all views have two sides, but in reality, things are never that simple. Most of us live in the gray area, and that is where you’ll find understanding and commonality.

Reflect What the Person is Saying

Reflecting what the person whom you are listening to is saying is a powerful tool that let’s that person know you are listening, and it also allows for the chance to clear up misunderstandings.

Simply say, “What I hear you saying is… “ and then attempt to repeat back what they said. This works best if you can use the exact words they used. They then have the opportunity to confirm that’s what they said, or rephrase things so that it better matches what they actually mean.

This also helps to check our own inner judge by stripping away the ability of our minds to paraphrase what the person said in order to better fit in with what we think they might be trying to say, based on our preconceived notions of what they believe. When we paraphrase we often show how our own judgments can leak in and twist listening into an acrobatic art of misunderstanding.

This is especially important in conversations where topics are charged and controversial. Listen to what the person is actually saying, not what you think they mean by what they are saying. Reflect it back, and then ask more questions. Repeat endlessly, until you not only feel like you understand the person, but until the person you are listening to feels understood.

Don’t Make it Personal

If seeking to understand before being understood is the toughest advice I have for you, this one is a close second. We want so badly to take it personally when we are talking to someone who feels differently than we do, and then make everything into a personal attack. But when we are being personally attacked, we shut down. We can’t listen. And when we can’t listen, we lose the chance to stop the cycle of misunderstandings and conflict.

The thing is that most of the time things really are not personal. Whatever feelings, viewpoints, and beliefs that person has, it was not 100% created in response to you. Even when someone is actively telling you that what they are saying is directed at you, about you, or caused by you, it isn’t. It’s their shit, not yours. Don’t fall into it. Definitely don’t roll around it just because they invite you to do so. Stand your ground.

It’s not personal.

Repeat it as a mantra if you have to. Refusing to take things personally is not a thing you do as an act of compassion to the person you are listening to. It’s a gift you give to yourself. You are taking the burden off your own shoulders and placing it where it belongs, firmly back on their side of the court.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Listening is hard work. It’s not something you’ll do perfectly every time. It’s a muscle we build, not a skill we learn once and master. It’s something you’ll likely have to practice, a lot, and even after all that practice there will be times when you fail.

It’s okay. Extend yourself and everyone around you some compassion. And then try again.

Keep practicing. Keep working on building that muscle.

It’s worth it.

Thinking Bigger

Listening is hard enough with our friends, our family, our partners… with people we know and love.

But the importance of listening goes further than just our immediate circle.

What if we listened to people we actively disagreed with? People whose viewpoint is so opposite yours that their every word feels like a personal attack?

What if we sought to understand before being understood, when talking to people who seem to be actively fighting against the very things we believe in most?

Listening is a revolutionary act.

Understanding has to start somewhere. Maybe it will start with you.

Will you be the feminist who chooses to listen to a man who seem to breathe sexism with every breath?

Will you be the Republican who chooses to listen to a Democrat?

Will you be the champion of 2nd amendment who chooses to listen to someone fighting for gun safety laws?

Will you be the African American who chooses to listen to the white supremacist?

No matter where you stand on an issue, there are people on the other side of that issue who feel just as powerfully as you do, and everyone seems to think they are right. Everyone just wants to be understood. But nobody thinks they should have to listen.

Close your eyes and imagine for one minute listening to someone who opposes you on a core issue. Let yourself feel in your body how hard that would be. Then… Imagine what it would feel like to be listened to by that same person.

Feel that. Can you feel just how powerful that would be? How healing?

Reclaim the power of listening, because listening is not just a thing you can do. It’s a superpower you don’t know that you have. Listening creates understanding, empathy, compassion, and connection. It is the pen that draws the line that connects us all, as humans. It allows us to find commonality, even with people who you might think you could not possibly ever understand or have things in common with.

Listening can change the world.

Just… listen.

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