The Gift of Listening


Talking is over-rated.  Like most things in life, I’ve discovered I have taken the role of listener for granted.  And probably like most people, I thought I was an above-average listener (note: most people think they’re above average, which of course means some people are wrong).    But listening with undivided attention is an amazing gift we can give to the speaker.   A good listener can make the speaker feel heard, appreciated, understood and valued.

Active listening is not easy, especially if our internal world is not organized for it.  Listeners often spend much of the time thinking about what they’re going to say next, how they feel about what they are being told, getting distracted by other unrelated thoughts, or trying to solve the problem of the speaker.

We listeners also interpret what we hear through our own biases and filters. For example, someone might tell me that they go to the bar to relax and I might think that this person may have a drinking problem.  For them it may be more social, seeing their friends, or watching sports on a big screen.    I shouldn’t assume I understand what they mean when they say “bar” even.  My first image was a seedy den of iniquity, but an Appleby’s is a bar too.  Or someone might have even said “barre” and is a dancer.  How is a person to know?   Ask, duh.

That’s my point.  We don’t know what it’s like for someone else. So we shouldn’t assume.

A good listener is actively engaged in the listening.  Just sitting and doing nothing does not make the speaker feel heard (think: blank expression, looking elsewhere, saying nothing).  Eye contact, little nods of the head, little affirmative sounds, an appropriate question or supportive statement sprinkled through the conversation conveys your engagement to the speaker.

Most people know this and do this automatically.  But here are some mistakes that many listeners make:

  • Jumping to conclusions – you really don’t know what it’s like to be the speaker, so don’t assume anything about them or what their words mean.  If there’s ambiguity, ask.
  • Judging – disengaging or becoming closed in the conversation because of a judgment about what was said.
  • Teaching – offering advice or an opinion when  speakers can really find their own solution.  Speakers will often feel better just being able to talk, and your curiosity about them may help them find their inner wisdom.
  • Interrupting – changing the focus of the conversation to self, instead of keeping it on the listener.  Going into teaching or problem-solver mode effectively is changing the focus to the listener.  Also, listeners may think the speaker is done with their story or thought and then jump in prematurely.  Asking “is there anything else?” is a good way to make sure they’re done speaking.
  • Supportive listening – a good listener will help the speaker savor the positive emotions and accomplishments by focusing on the best and most affirming parts of the story.

Most people are not prepared to do this level of listening  on a daily basis, myself included.   It takes a lot of effort to be totally in their world and out of ours.   I’m also not saying that we have to do this every time we converse with someone.  But consider how it would feel to a friend, loved one, coworker or even stranger for us to give them that gift.  What if the speaker is afraid?  Angry?  Hurt?  Disappointed?  Sad?  Consider how they’d feel after a conversation where we’re actively listening, versus if we are mainly interested in being heard?  Perhaps we don’t have to employ this level of listening with every conversation, but maybe after increasing our self-awareness  we might decide we want to increase our overall active listening a little bit with all our conversations.  We might be surprised what we learn when we stop and really listen to others.