Can You Hear Me Now?

The Case for Becoming a Better Listener

Photo by kyle smith on Unsplash

I am a mediocre listener. Better than some, worse than most therapists. The reason I am semi-good at it is I am not usually very talkative. I notice I do have some very talkative friends but that must be because opposites attract. Sometimes my mind wanders, but I digress.

Listening, it turns out, is a skill that most people don’t have. Research suggests that even though we spend 40 percent of our waking hours listening to others we retain 25 percent or less of what we hear. That means the majority of what people say to us surfs in one ear and moondoggies out the other.

There are many reasons for this but the main ones are:

The crux of it seems to be, what’s in it for you? Say it’s an instructor for a class you need to graduate, your boss at your quarterly review, or a stewardess explaining how to put on your life jacket as your plane is falling out of the sky your ability to focus in on them becomes damn near word for word. Because you need the grade, the raise, to not die.

So in certain moments we do have the capacity to accurately hear what someone else is saying, however…

My mind is so big I can’t see you

We are all ego driven selfish pricks. Just kidding. But we are ego driven. And that seems to be the primary reason we don’t allow others to have our full attention. Our minds are very preoccupied with our own thoughts so to become better at listening to other ego driven entities we have to practice Zen. I’m not kidding. It entails slowing down our own busy monkey mind, breathing deeply, suspending judgement to create a clear channel for those words coming at us.

Human brains can process up to 500 words per minute. In that same amount of time an average person speaks about 125 words. If we are not disciplining ourselves to be poised to listen we will invariably move on to deciding what to make for dinner and where it was we put the recipe. As in meditation practice, this will happen way more than once. And as in meditation the idea is to make note that your mind is wandering again then reel it back in. Over and over. Rinse and repeat. As often as required.

Slowing down the breath is a useful way to divert our minds away from all those random thoughts. By quieting down the internal noise vying for our attention we can more effectively focus in on the person speaking to us.

Do fences make good neighbors?

Self knowledge is crucial in learning listening skills. We all have biases and opinions which color how we view the world and those who inhabit it. We make judgments of others usually within the first fifteen seconds of meeting them. That is a remnant of an important survival skill we do instinctively but carrying those judgments, biases and opinions into a conversation can hinder a free flowing exchange. It can often create barriers between you and the speaker whether it is out in the open between you or just something you erect in your mind.

The willingness to suspend judgement when listening to another is actually the conduit toward a free and open exchange. People need to trust before they will reveal more vulnerable parts of themselves. You prove your trustworthiness by listening to them free from bias, judgement, criticism. This requires much self control and consigning of your ego to second place as you put the speaker first. Once the fences are down, however, you are given the privilege to bear witness to their lives. To see with their eyes, hear with their ears, feel with their hearts.

Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ear

In an ideal world we would all listen to each other as we desire to be listened to. In order to be heard. And maybe remembered. Sometimes you don’t know what you actually think until you say it out loud to a receptive, non-judgmental someone. But the truth is in my own real world of human conversing I find I am constantly having to remind myself that I forgot to actually listen. I have been talking since I was a toddler, so it has become habitual that as soon as a conversation starts words babble out of me while I forget to really listen to whoever is babbling back.

Here’s the deal.

The payoff of learning how to listen well is worth way more than the effort to become skilled at it. Like meditation it isn’t easy. It will take time and practice. It will take discipline. However by laying down our barriers, our scattered attention, our need for center stage we gain the ability to walk around in someone else’s shoes and to experience the world through them. It’s the closest thing we will ever have to a Spockian mind meld. Isn’t that better than settling for what commonly passes for human interaction? We can half-ass it and do it mindlessly or we can try to extend our clearest reception as a gesture of goodwill in order to gain that moment of grace between you and I.

There is a way between voice and presence

Where information flows

In disciplined silence it opens

With wandering talk it closes.

-Rumi

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