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Listen, listen, and you shall hear…

Betty Firth
Posted 11/22/21

Four years ago, I wrote a column about listening and received several appreciative comments about it. However, I’ve noticed there’s still a lot of not listening going on in the world out …

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Listen, listen, and you shall hear…

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Four years ago, I wrote a column about listening and received several appreciative comments about it. However, I’ve noticed there’s still a lot of not listening going on in the world out there, so I thought I’d give it another go. With the holidays coming up, what better time to brush up on your listening skills in what might be challenging social situations?
Listening well is not that complicated, but I think we often do it badly. Sometimes it’s because we’re talking too much, but a lot of the time 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.
Here’s a list of the right-off-the-top behaviors to avoid: 1) Interrupting; 2) Distractedly looking at other people or activities going on around you; 3) Checking your phone or other devices, including the TV; 4) Fidgeting with stuff or shifting position repeatedly; 5) Responding inappropriately with vague comments. Examples of the latter, which you might think indicates good listening, are “I hear you” or “I’m with you, buddy,” when you’re just spitting out meaningless words. If you hear yourself repeating certain phrases frequently, they’re probably generic cliches devoid of much meaning: “Bummer. I’m all over that. Got it. Awesome. Super cool.” The list is endless and shifts with current word trends, often fostered and popularized by TV shows.
Interruptions come in many forms, but probably the all-time favorite is sharing your own story, or lacking that, the story of someone you know or a friend of a friend, or a story you heard on Facebook: “Boy, I get what you’re going through. That happened to me (a friend, family member, a faceless Facebook stranger,) so I know that’s gotta’ be tough.” Usually when we’re interrupting, we may think we’re offering understanding and compassion, but probably underlying that is a level of discomfort. We’re uncomfortable with what they’re telling us for a variety of reasons, (or we may just be bored) and we really just want the person to stop talking or switch to safer (or more interesting) territory: “How ‘bout those Vikings?” “Can you believe this weather we’re having?”
We are living in an era of spinning opinions instead of actual entertainment or news. How many radio and TV talk shows exist that feature people spewing their opinions, some valid, some just bloviating. How many “listening shows” are there? As the internet has dominated the way people spend their time, newspapers, news programs, and entertainment that are expensive to program have all suffered. It’s much cheaper to do call-in shows, asking John and Jane Everyday Citizen to share their experiences and opinions, and much more expensive to pay actual investigative reporters with experience and expertise to delve into issues in depth; much more expensive to take responsibility for the accuracy of the information being broadcast or published. And, of course, there’s all the social media options, begging you for your opinions with a simple click to “Like” or “Dislike”; you don’t even have to use words…just thumbs up or down sends your mini-bite of opinion out into the world clamoring to hear what you think. Well, actually, no human is clamoring, but only the algoritms that you’re feeding the fodder they crave. If you really want to go in depth, you’ll add some emojis.
What does all that have to do with listening? Nothing, that’s the point. You don’t have to listen to anybody, just scan their comments and spew your opinions with no threatening, in-your-face rebuttal. (As I get to do with this column.)
So, if you’re doing any of those behaviors listed above, just stop it. You know how. That’s just the first step, but it will be helpful. The next steps are more difficult, but I have confidence we can all do it. When someone is speaking, keep eye contact with them, even if they’re across the room. Give them time to complete their thoughts. Avoid competitive conversations. If you notice that you and others are just waiting to pounce with your comments or arguments, take the initiative to shift the energy: “Hey, wait, I’d like to hear what else Susan has to say.
The proverbial donkey (or elephant) in the room, is the political partisanship that has become so intense and ingrained in our country. It may be a good idea to avoid discussing politics, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid your friends and family members who have very different views. Let’s try to remember that they are human beings with the same basic needs and desires that we have, wanting health, happiness, and security. But how do we handle those glaring differences? Perhaps imagining that you just met these people and you’re curious about who they are, what they’re interested in, and what experiences they’ve had in their lives. You may think you know everything about them, but chances are you do not. If you’re having a family dinner that you think could go south, invite a couple new people to the table, and chances are the family will behave better. If they’re good conversationalists, the newcomers will be asking the kinds of questions that you could be, too.
Excellent listening really means you are paying attention to people, really noticing who they are. Harvey Jackins, the founder of Reevaluation Counseling, (aka co-counseling) said, “Everyone needs to be listened to for at least fifteen minutes a day to share what has gone well and what could go better.” How often do you get that? At least fifteen solid minutes of being completely listened to without interruptions or comments of any kind? I think that’s why we are so often spouting off, sharing our stories and opinions at the expense of listening well, because we so want to be heard.
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. The three magical words we all love to hear? “Tell me more.” Have a lovely Thanksgiving.

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  • lynne

    Great column! Excellent listening seems to be in short supply these days but I still hold out hope it will eventually come back in style.

    I'm on a mission to get rid of clutter particularly clipped out articles, cartoons, family stuff, etc. One clipping with no date was an oped from Marshall, "Listening to the Women Talk on Thanksgiving Day". I had no memory of this oped but it deserves to be reprinted. Women talking in the kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner was over and all the males in the den watching football. The males sat mostly in silence unless commenting on the game while the women were talking about life, feelings, etc. As a young girl, I remember eavesdropping on the women in the kitchen, more interesting than the silence in the den although it was frustrating when they noticed me and started speaking Finnish to each other when the topics were not for children.

    I had clipped out columns from 2003 to 2004 by Vera Million in the Tower newspaper which were a delight. I don't remember the man's name who wrote the columns or how many years he wrote them but he had a quirky sense of humor.

    Saturday, November 27 Report this