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I was sitting at my friend’s kitchen table, visiting with her as our sons played just outside. Suddenly my five-year-old came in and said to her, “Adam needs you.”
But my friend was determined to teach her son to wait his turn. We were having a conversation and she wasn’t about to jump up and run every time he chose to interrupt. So she said, “Tell Adam he’s just going to have to wait.”
I remember thinking, Good for her. Kids need to realize they can’t just snap their fingers and get everything they want.
“But he needs you,” my son said.
“Well, when I’m through I’ll come out there,” my friend said.
My son sighed. “Okay, but… he’s upside down.”
Now my friend dashed outside to find her son dangling upside down from his swing set, somehow having caught his shoelace in the links of the swing. And we all learned a good lesson in communicating.
Sometimes we don’t want to listen, so we tune out. But what about those times when we really do want to listen and we just can’t do it well? We think we’re straining to hear, truly tuned in, and then the other person says we simply aren’t paying attention. How can this happen? Here are five ways we keep ourselves from truly listening:
1. We Think it’s About Hearing the Words
We think it’s about hearing the words, which we understand and process. We forget to listen between the lines, so to speak, and probe for feelings. We may hear “This wasn’t where I wanted to eat,” but what they’re really saying is, “I feel like my wishes don’t matter to you.” Only by asking clarifying questions can we really get to the meat of the matter.
If you look up the etymology of the word “listen,” you’ll find its Germanic root means to hear, attend to, and obey. Just as you’d expect. But listening is definitely not a synonym for merely hearing. I like to think of those first four letters, list, which can be a sailing verb meaning to lean, as in a boat listing to one side. To me, this is a great reminder that when we listen, we should actually lean in and try to meet that person in the place where they are— try to feel what they feel, and sincerely empathize.
Too many people think they’re listening when all they’re really doing is waiting to speak. When we’re in a two-way conversation or even a quarrel, we need to set aside our own points for a moment, and focus solely upon what the other person wants to say. Once we have a perfect understanding of their feelings, only then can we expect them to listen to our side of it. Making sure we truly “get it” can even include rephrasing their position until they agree that what we’re repeating back to them is a good summary of their opinion. And this works at home, in the workplace, at school, and in church callings.
2. We Think We Already Know the Answer
Another way we block good listening is when we think we already know the answer. In fact, we may even interrupt the speaker to jump ahead and provide the solution we know he’s going for. We think we’re magnanimous, showing how quickly we’ve grasped his point, and boy, we’re even saving him time to explain it.
But this makes the speaker feel belitted, rushed, and cut off. It’s not respectful. Even if you’re certain you know where a person is headed in their explanation, let them finish it out. They will feel valued, heard, and understood. Think how vital it is in missionary work to convey that love, that caring, rather than jumping in with an answer we all know so well.
And, many times, the person will take it in another direction than you thought they would. By taking a few moments to let them freely express themselves, you often learn something in the process.
When I was younger I used to think (naively, I now know) that I had a lot of answers. Now I realize I have many more questions than I do answers. So many, in fact, that I picture them extending out into the universe, while my answers sit in a tidy, rather small box at my feet. And this is how we should probably feel about those around us—we may think we know them quite well and know what they’re saying, but in fact we have only a small glimpse of their inner soul, the bits they’ve felt safe sharing.
A few years ago I wrote an article which appeared in the Ensign Magazine, called Caught in a Casserole. It was about how we often think we’re addressing a person’s needs by responding our way (i.e. taking a casserole for every need that arises) instead of probing to find out what’s really wanted and helpful. This is a perfect example of how good listening might help us serve in ways that show genuine caring, instead of thinking we already have all the answers.
3. We’re Bottling up Our Own Feelings.
What? How can our own failure to say what we’re feeling impact our ability to hear what others are saying? Because we are too focused on ourselves.
It’s ironic, but many people who think they’re good at hearing others’ feelings, still find themselves being accused of not listening well. In the book, Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen (members of the Harvard Communication Project), the authors explain, “Paradoxically, it’s because they don’t know how to express themselves well. Unexpressed feelings can block the ability to listen.” When we have buried emotions we haven’t faced, we stop probing for understanding and stay focused on our own anger, self-pity, and misery. The authors continue, “It’s hard to hear someone else when we are feeling unheard, even if the reason we feel unheard is that we have chosen not to share. Our listening ability often increases remarkably once we have expressed our own strong feelings.”
In addition, poor communication skills lead us to draw incorrect conclusions because we aren’t as adept at our own language as we think we are. When someone expresses a feeling, if we’ve never expressed anything similar, we are less likely to identify and understand that person.
4. Pride Blocks Our Listening.
When we are not humble, we can become defensive. We don’t want to hear correction, even gentle correction, and we bristle at the idea that we’re being told to improve in some way (hence stoning the prophets and counter-attacking leaders who point out our failings). This can happen in the workplace when we worry we’ll be seen as dropping the ball. It can happen in a marriage when we think our spouse is disappointed in us. It can happen at church when we take offense at someone correcting us.
When our guard is up we are not listening, but formulating a defense, possibly even a counter attack. Or at least an explanation of why our error is unimportant, common, or unworthy of attention. None of these preoccupations help us strive to truly understand the other party. And it is to our peril if the person we are ignoring is trying to offer keys to salvation.
Elder Russell M. Nelson spoke of listening to church leaders, and cited Acts 3:22-23, which says, “A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you … him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you…Every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.” He went on to quote President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who said, “’We do not lack a prophet; what we lack is a listening ear.’ Words of the Lord are taught by His disciples. (See D&C 1:4.) Wise members listen to learn from Church leaders.”
5. We rush.
This is particularly detrimental when we think about listening to the Holy Ghost, without question the most important listening we can do. Satan knows this, of course, and fills our world with the constant pull of electronic devices, texts, “likes,” Snapchats, and virtually addictive social media. He also wants us to fixate on busy-ness, cramming our lives with every possible distraction to keep us from pondering and meditating upon spiritual matters. He tries his best to keep us from studying the scriptures because it is often during this important activity that we are most likely to receive inspiration.
Listening to the Spirit should be one of our highest priorities. That inspiration not only directs our path for safety, wise major decisions, and great ideas about how to solve our everyday problems, but it can testify of the truthfulness of this gospel, and can whisper calm to us, and keep us from fretting and giving in to anxiety over matters we cannot control. Those sweet whisperings can bring us peace and joy even in the midst of turbulence, if we can only take time to listen. Why would we want to rob ourselves of such a blessing?
President Henry B. Eyring said, “If you listen with the Spirit, you will find your heart softened, your faith strengthened, and your capacity to love the Lord increased.” President Heber J. Grant said that listening to the Spirit not only helps us live the gospel, but that we can then “inspire others to do so.”
Perhaps the best place to practice truly listening is when we study scriptures, and when we pray. President Spencer W. Kimball said, “It would not hurt us, either, if we paused at the end of our prayers to do some intense listening—even for a moment or two—always praying, as the Savior did, ‘not my will, but thine, be done.’ (Luke 22:42.)”
But all of this, of course, takes time. The Spirit can’t be hurried or brushed aside in hopes that it will burst through our inattention and demand to be heard. We must invite it with a humble heart and a willingness to follow whatever promptings we receive. I tend to hurry and find I must deliberately slow down, even if it goes against my grain. For me, the natural man is the whirling dervish racing through life, and I feel much closer to my Savior when I slow down and listen. We cannot commune with the Holy Ghost otherwise. And this same skill helps with listening in our personal relationships as well.
Let’s do it. By truly setting aside our own agendas, trying to truly understand others, opening our hearts, and slowing down, we might become the listeners we already thought we were.
Perfect for Mother’s Day– Hilton’s new LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as a Relief Society President.