Updated: Apr 16, 2020
When someone is sincerely listening to me, I feel significant, loved, and in context. I feel that in the act of trying to understand me, the listener exhibits an impressive humility, suspension of judgment, and a desire to learn about the things that are difficult for me to express. And then, not so magically, I am curious about their perspective, anxious to ask questions, and adopting the same humility.
This is a lovely picture of a conversation, but it can’t happen unless someone listens first. I’m not so sure why listening first is so difficult; it just is. Count the people you know who are superior listeners – it doesn’t take long, does it? I think the difficulty must have something to do with this deep longing to be understood and to feel the validation I described above. But in this anxious push to be understood, we sabotage the whole process and probably make things worse by not listening to others first.
During many serious discussions, we are primarily trying to get the other person to understand our motives and actions, which on the surface is quite reasonable and well-intentioned. During this process, big verbal chunks of details are launched by both parties with little chance of one being understood by the other. While I see my own message as an explanation, the recipient may see the information as a refusal to listen and further evidence of defensive behavior. The whole exchange is like a big verbal game of Red Rover, where no one ever breaks through. Think about the countless political talk shows when guests talk all over each other. I can't change the channel fast enough.
At best, listening is tough and I’m sure each of us can list a page full of internal and external distractions to explain why. The golden rule really applies here. We are desperate to be understood, so if we listen first and are just as desperate to understand another human being, our chances for mutual success increase exponentially.
During times of transition, anxieties and tempers can ride high, adding to the listening dilemma. Do you deserve the same courtesy, respect, and application of the golden rule? Absolutely, but someone has to listen first.
Below are some questions to help us listen more effectively.
Do I care? If not, I’m in big trouble on the listening front.
What assumptions am I making? Are the assumptions based on outside observable information, or my own internal conclusions?
Am I asking questions because I sincerely want to know the answers, or is there some other motive? “Are you serious?” is not a question; it’s a thinly veiled insult.
Do I feel compassion? If not, is it because I’m angry or defensive? It’s okay to be both, but I have to be honest with myself because no one is fooled if I pretend otherwise.
Is my internal voice respectful, or am I plotting brilliant and witty monologues?
What about my responses? Am I paraphrasing to make sure I understand? Am I really responding to what was just said, or is my priority to make sure the other person knows all the details that will validate my point of view?
To wrap up these few listening highlights, the most practical thing to keep in mind is just how desperate people are to be understood. That desperation fuels every other communication choice. If we can seek first to understand another’s point of view, this may very well be the key to mercifully ending the infinite Red Rover game, prevent escalation of negativity, and reach mutual understanding. When both parties feel the validation of being understood, we can begin to work together toward a solid and lasting solution.