Listening. It’s really not complicated but most of us are really bad at it most of the time. Sometimes it’s because we’re talking too much, but often it’s because we’re thinking too much and just not paying attention. Our minds are busy with our own thoughts, plans, and concerns, so we’re really not hearing even though it looks like we’re listening. If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing to create more peace and understanding in the world, it would be to magically imbue everyone with excellent listening skills, with a dash of compassion thrown in so they would care, as well.
Listening is not complicated, but it does take focus and practice to listen with good attention and to let go of the bad habits of bad listening, or let’s call it “incomplete listening.” Bad habit #1: Jumping in with a comment or a response before the other person has completed their thought because you think you know where they’re going with it. Bad habit #2: Responding with your own story, drawing the attention to yourself, which is often the result and sometimes the motivation of bad listening. Bad habit #3: Giving advice when the person didn’t want advice, they wanted a good listener. Even when we’re exercising these bad habits mentally, without a word spoken out loud, they interfere with complete listening: they derail the thought processes so we’re literally not hearing the words, not to mention the meanings, that are being spoken.
There are various programs and formats to help us learn to become better listeners. One technique is to reflect back to the person what they said, repeating it as closely as possible: “I heard you say… “That can be very useful in a mediation setting, with facilitators helping the communication process by guiding the disagreeing people through a very structured process of speaking and responding. The original speaker may then have an opportunity to respond: “Yes, that’s what I said” or “No, I said it this way” or “He forgot to say….” which can continue until there is agreement about what was said.
Now, in normal conversation, that would be cumbersome and irritating; someone might even respond with anger, thinking you’re mocking them or being sarcastic.
I learned about and practiced excellent listening skills doing Reevaluation Counseling (also known as co-counseling or R.C.) In this form of peer counseling, we learned to listen very well to another and then switch roles for our chance to do the speaking. This quality of listening went beyond anything I’d learned elsewhere: we would give the person our total attention with eye contact and sometimes with physical contact if the speaker wanted it. We learned not to blurt out our own emotional responses, even in empathy, for even that takes attention away from the speaker. We learned not to offer reassurance or advice, for the same reason. The reason we were doing co-counseling was to have the opportunity to talk about our lives, to help discharge feelings and thoughts that were holding us back from what we wanted to accomplish or manifest. In our normal days, very few of us get listening to really well, and it is truly remarkable to experience it.
I have introduced other individuals and groups to these skills where it becomes quickly apparent that such complete listening doesn’t come naturally. Some people are initially very uncomfortable with it, for it can feel like you’re speaking into a vacuum. We’re used to responding in various ways while listening; even encouraged to do so to show we’re actively listening.
Co-counselors and others have taken their listening skills to the streets, setting up listening stations in various situations with an invitation for people to come talk to them. Two psychotherapists in San Francisco, Lily Sloane and Traci Ruble, decided to work together since they shared a vision of bringing healing to “that which divides us” through skilled listening on the streets of San Francisco. In 2015, they set up 12 locations throughout San Francisco with 28 other listeners. They had lawn chairs, signs and T-shirts that said, “Sidewalk Talk: You talk, We listen.”
They didn’t know what was going to happen, but felt it was important to try something new because they felt a shift happening in “the way we interact around mental health connection and community, and we wanted to be part of it.” People did respond, the media joined them, and word spread with people from around the state and the country wanting to know how to set up Sidewalk Talk in their towns. Lin Siegfried wrote about the importance of listening in the column here two weeks ago regarding the political divisiveness in our country that can have such a devastating effect on relationships with friends, co-workers and family. Listening projects have been set up in areas of disaster, such as on the streets after the 9/11 attacks and places where there is a lot of contention about a local issue. I have fantasized doing this in Ely around the copper mining issue, but I haven’t figured out how to recruit enough people to do it with me. These days, we could have listening stations on every corner…pick your issue.
In a recent workshop on Non-Violent Compassionate Communication, the leader, Ann Harrington of Ann Harrington Training and Consulting, described violence as the “tragic expression of unmet needs,” and it struck me how well that fits so many expressions of negativity, large and small.
I have wondered what was going on for the people who killed the trees at the Veterans Memorial and vandalized the equipment in the park. To me, those are clear expressions of unmet needs, lashing out in incomprehensible ways against living trees, lovingly planted, and playground and park equipment that took many donor dollars and volunteer efforts to procure.
At the heart of Reevaluation Counseling is the concept that everyone needs to be listened to for at least fifteen minutes a day to share what has gone well and what could go better, to paraphrase R. C. founder Harvey Jackins. How often does that happen for you? When we truly listen, we are acknowledging the importance of another’s thoughts and feelings, joys and concerns, indeed, of their very existence. When we are listened to, we are no longer invisible.
Surveys of young people about their use of social media have shown that it’s very important to them to feel connected with others. One college student said he felt like he didn’t exist any more when he stopped using his phone and social media for a week as part of a class assignment. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media are all about talking, sharing, opinionating, and hearing what others are saying. I can’t help but believe it’s more important and more powerful to have that experience in person, face-to-face, looking into the eyes of someone who is completely focused on what you have to say. What are three of the most beautiful words on the planet? “Tell me more.”