A recent billboard campaign motivated me to revisit the subject of listening. One contrasted a loud speaker with a big ear; another showed two big ears with the slogan “it runs in the family;” another made the point that two big ears were better than a big mouth. I suspect the campaign was effective because we all yearn to be listened to and understood.
We hear a lot about how to express ourselves clearly and effectively, but notmuch about how to listen. Yet to listen well is a much more powerful part of the communication process than to speak well.
I came across an important concept about listening in an article by Kedrik Hamlin. He suggested that to listen well you have to let go of the reins of the relationship because listening involves quite a bit of surrender. The listener, in effect, must sacrifice control. A good listener has to say, “Okay, you drive for a while; I’ll just sit here and listen.” (LDS Living, July/August 2010)
I’m pondering that message in regard to my unfortunate habit of interrupting my husband. When I interrupt am I not, in effect, grabbing back the reins and insisting on being in control? Here’s my main barrier to listening: My emotional reaction to something he says ignites ideas, feelings, and [contrary] opinions that push me to interrupt in order to offer my own [supposedly more informed] opinion. Nothing shuts down communication faster! Information is not shared and minds are not expanded and no one learns anything they didn’t know before when either party is too quick to interrupt and contradict.
It takes humility to listen. I have to sit back, forget myself and my own perceptions long enough to engage with the other person. It isn’t an easy thing to do. My ego doesn’t want me to do it because ego is simply intent on making my own points and wanting to be right. I can’t insist on being right and be a good listener. To listen I must have the attitude that, “You might have a point. There might be something to that. You may just know something about that particular thing that I don’t. Maybe I could learn something here.”
Listening Beyond Words
I love to peruse the shelves of used book stores, and a few years ago a title caught my attention: Straight Talk: A New Way to Get Closer to Others by Saying What You Really Mean. I grabbed it up, took it home, and quickly found that the authors’ advice on effective communication included poignant quotes on listening.
“The man who listens to the voice of a friend, or his wife, or his child, but does not catch the message in the tone of voice: Notice me. Help me. Care about me.’ Hears, but does not really listen . . .
“May we learn to listen to the music of the world, the infant’s cry, the sighs of love. May we listen to the call of help from the lonely.May we listen for the sound of a heart breaking.May we listen not only to the words of those we love, but for those things they don’t say out loud.May we begin to listen to the things inside ourselves that we did not have words for, and find the words to say them.”
(Straight Talk: A New Way to Get Closer to Others by Saying What You Really Mean, by Miller, Wackman, Nunnally, and Saline, 1981, p. 144)
Finding words that tell our truth encourages others to tell theirs, and watching for non-verbal cues greatly enhances our ability to hear the meaning beyond the words. We can’t do this if the focus of our mind is on how to solve the speaker’s problems or how to convince them to change their perceptions.
The Fix-it Obstacle
One great obstacle to really listening to each other is the “Fix it” mentality. Straight Talk offered this insight:“Many genuinely compassionate souls are so eager to correct problems that they make the poorest listeners. Rushing in like Mr. Fix-It with emotional Band-Aids, they are quick with advice and solutions that would work for them. But it’s a general rule of thumb that when someone confides in you, the last thing they really want is answers. What they are looking for is understanding; someone to care about their troubles.” (Ibid, p. 146)
One mother shared the following story: “I was always memorizing scriptures and quotes on the subject of my child’s latest problem, thinking how I could be such a light in my child’s life. During each conversation with the child I would pray, Tell me, Lord, when to share all this good advice I’ve memorized.’ Much to my surprise, I was rarely inspired to unload my vast stores of wisdom. Instead I was told, I will teach these things to your child; you just need to listen to them.'” Only the Lord truly knows the best way into our children’s minds and hearts, and only occasionally will we be the vehicle to get it there. Only the Savior can save our children, but we can be a source of great support to them along the way by really listening.
Since all my closest confidantes share the “fix it” tendency with me, we’ve had an interesting challenge helping each other just listen, instead of jumping in with quick suggestions and solutions. We’ve learned to say things to each other such as, “I’m not asking for help with this problem; I just need to vent.” Perhaps we can teach our spouses and children to be this clear with us also.
It has taken me a lifetime to even begin to learn how to really listen. I suspect that when a child is not respectfully listened to, it is harder to listen to others respectfully. I came from a home where only Dad’s opinion counted, and where inner thoughts and honest feelings were never spoken (a family pattern that seemed to be common in the “olden” days). Many parents were so busy just trying to survive they had no time to sit around and chat about feelings. However, Grandma could listen to her children while they snipped beans or shelled peas or hung out the clothes together. Today, we supposedly have more “leisure” time, but run competition with TV, video games, smart phones, and a million activities. We may have to grab the moment whenever it appears.
The most important thing is that we see the need. One mother of a teenage girl who was having severe problems, said to a counselor, “Jill and I have a very open, honest relationship.We don’t have to talk about it.” What irony!
Listening to Seek Understanding, Not Agreement
Another problem arises because most of us have been raised to listen for agreement, not understanding.
Listening for agreement implies there is a right and a wrong position on nearly every subject and that the person who is “right” needs to convert the other person to his way of thinking. Our society encourages the false notion that only if two people agree and share the same point of view can their relationship prosper. The problem with this idea is that no two human beings wear the same filter for information; each comes from a unique background of experiences and conditioning. I always laugh when a young couple, madly in love and planning marriage, tell me “we like all the same things and agree on almost everything.” Just wait, I think, until you’ve been married five hours; you’ll start noticing how differently each of you views the world. When differences surface, as they inevitably do, couples whose goal is consensus tend to struggle over which one has the true view of reality. When we think we must convince the other to see the situation through our periscope, neither really listens to the other, and neither is satisfied.
I was forty-six when I married for the second time–a wonderful man whose dissimilar background had programmed him with perceptions entirely different than mine. During courtship we reveled in our similar goals and the characteristics we found in each other that seemed to be exactly what we were looking for. As we proceeded into the realities of every-day interactions in marriage, we became painfully aware of the difficulty of finding anything that we thought alike about.
This was a bigger problem for me than it was for Doug, who is a master at “live and let live”–of agreeing to disagree. I, on the other hand, was very used to seeking consensus, especially when “I knew I was right” (smile, smile). Surely if I just talked long and hard enough I could get him to adopt my more enlightened point of view (more smiles).
One day after one of those talking sessions, Doug proceeded to give me an object lesson I have never forgotten. He held up a piece of paper. One side was full of words; the side he held up to me was blank. He said, “What do you see?” I said, “I see a blank page.” He said, “Because I’m facing a different side of the page, I see a page full of print. I can’t see what you are seeing because my life experience is different. Do you want me to lie and tell you I see it the same as you do?”
What could I say? Nothing but emotional dishonesty comes from pressuring our loved ones to see it our way when that is literally impossible. When my goal is agreement, differences in perceptions or opinions become an affront to my judgment; I take things personally. I feel that if someone rejects my opinion, they reject me. While they are talking, my focus is primarily on my own thoughts. All the while I’m listening to them my mind is busy figuring out my next “speech” and how I’m going to “straighten out” the thinking of the person I’m listening to.
“When you’ve got one ear tuned to a speaker and the other tuned to yourself, you’re a pseudo-listener. You appear to be listening, but you are really waiting for your turn to talk. You can’t practice attentive listening when you are primarily interested in expressing your viewpoint or airing your opinion. Attentive listeners temporarily silence self in order to concentrate on others. Their intention is to understand, not to force agreement. Their eyes watch for nonverbal cues; their ears are keen; their hearts are open.” (Ibid p. 145, 147)
The jackal is an animal that has two ears pointing forward. Both our ears need to point forward to the speaker in order to be good listeners.
“Watch the tension evaporate as the need for false togetherness wanes . . . You will be surprised at how much stronger your relationships will be when you abandon forced compliance and relax with the acceptance of differences. Eventually you will appreciate that being understood brings people closer together more than any form of artificial agreement. (Ibid pp. 160-161)
While we may never completely understand another person, we can always seek to better understand. While we might not agree on everything, we can seek the Lord’s help to gain consensus on the things that really matter. We can give up the idea of “who is right” and focus on “what is right” –knowing we both have to turn to the Lord for His perspective. And along the way we can try to make each other feel more loved because of our willingness to listen and accept true feelings.
Listening to Understand Is Listening with Charity
When my children were little, we would have conversations like this:
Mother: “Isn’t it wonderful that we know which church is true?”
Mother: “Aren’t you glad we have living apostles and prophets?”
Mother: “Do you want to be baptized when you turn eight and become a member of the Church?”
Child: “Sure, Mom.”
Not bad ideas to put into little minds, but my children knew exactly what I wanted to hear, and usually parroted back just the right words. Because they knew my goal was to have them agree with me, I rarely heard what they really thought. By having the courage to hear the truth, even when it hurts, we dismantle the barrier of needing our loved one to agree with us, and grow in our ability to consider the right of others to have ideas and feelings we do not necessarily share or endorse. Only then will a loved one dare tell us the truth, instead of parroting back the answers they know we want to hear. Only then will be on the path to becoming the kind of listener our loving Heavenly Father is.
I’ll never forget the first time I had a son reveal doubts about the Church. It was so hard to hear, but until I knew the truth I was not in any kind of position to understand him and help him. By loving the truth “things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come” we can learn to validate a loved one and their right to think and feel for themselves. We can listen, ask open-ended questions such as “Could you explain more about that?” and tell them we consider it a gift that they would share their real feelings. Even though we may never completely agree with or understand the other person, we can maintain a close relationship if we are willing to hear, and willing to really listen.
Other ideas I got from the Straight Talk book are:
Listening for understanding has a totally different orientation from listening for agreement:
<p style="margin-top: 0.
<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ /><hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />1pt; text-indent: 36pt;”> Shows that you value someone else’s perceptions
Enables you to see differences and broaden your view of reality.
Helps you listen to learn how someone’s experience affects him or her, not how it affects you.
Indicates that differences are healthy.
Awakens you to explore, to discover, and to grow. (Ibid p.160)
The Heart of Attentive Listening Is Listening to Learn . . .
Proverbs 1:5 says “A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels.”
I seldom learn anything when I am doing the talking, and I rarely sense the wise thing to do next. However, “Attentive listeners observe, acknowledge, encourage, check out, interpret, and participate in sharing meanings.” (Ibid p. 148) Mother Teresa said, “If you turn your eyes and ears to see and hear you will know what needs to be done.”
Picture any relationship, situation, or issue as a giant puzzle with many pieces. As listeners, we hold some of these pieces and so does the speaker. And only when the two combine pieces will the puzzle start to fit together. Only by hearing the other person’s honest expression can we act appropriately. We will learn from each other, even in the areas of our strongest disagreements.
Elder Russell M. Nelson in an April 1991 conference talk titled, “Listen to Learn,” said, “Your soul will be blessed as you learn to listen, then listen tolearn from children, parents, partners, neighbors, and Church leaders,all of which will heighten capacity to hear counsel from on high. Carefully listen to learn from the Lord through the still smallvoice-the Holy Spirit-which leads to truth. Listen to learn by studying scriptures that record His holy mind and will.Listen to learn in prayer, for He will answer the humble who truly seek Him.”
The Lord’s invitation us to us is clear: to open our eyes to see and ears to hear so we might learn and understand the blessings He desires for us. When blessings are withheld it seems it can be because our ears are deaf and our eyes blinded. “For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.” (Matthew 13:15)
Listening with charity, the pure love of Christ, is listening to understand and learn, listening to fill the other person’s need to be listened to, cared about, and validated. May we have not only ears to hear, but charitable hearts that seek understanding.
Author’s Note: Both of my books are now available in e-book format. For information about Trust God No Matter What, and After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On, check out my website: darlaisackson.com