The motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, once said, “People often say that motivation does not last. Well, neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily.” The same philosophy holds true for listening, whether in intimate, family or working-relationship interactions. Over and over again, attending to other’s messages is crucial for successful relationships.
When researching for my book, From Woe to WOW: How Resilient Women Succeed at Work, I felt surprised that only seven survey respondents (out of 376) described using listening to support them or deal with adversity. One woman reported that when, “team members were burning out, there was a rippling effect on the team.” She, “listened, created new opportunities for them when able, said no more consistently and let things go.” Listening can be a powerful remedy to other’s discontent. Alternatively, lack of listening can create disconnect and loss of respect.
Years ago, I weakened a friendship. My friend came by train for a weekend visit. With my typical enthusiasm, I shared with her many aspects of my life explaining all the details from the story behind planting the tulips to how I had successfully toilet trained our youngest child. Then, I shared some more and some more. To her credit, once back in her own home, she wrote me a letter telling me how she left feeling invisible, unappreciated and disconnected. After buckets of tears, I vowed I would learn to listen.
Through a caring ear, others will sense that we respect them, are present and are safe for the sharing. The old cliché, it is useful to have a sounding board is true. The late poet and author, Alice Duer Miller, described it like this,
You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.”
Sometimes, we need a mirror, someone to witness our struggle or joy, someone to witness who we are.
When we are in a high feeling state, there is little energy to fuel clear thinking. The brain goes on automatic pilot. Some people appear to flip into another personality. Agnes might suddenly turn into Anxious Agnes, Angry Anne, or Suffering Sally. Listening helps bring people’s brains back to a functioning mode. Don’t ask a sobbing or fist-clenched employee when a report will be complete. Listen first.
Few of us know how to really listen. Here are some facts:
- 75 percent of the time, we are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful
- More than 35 business studies indicate that listening is a top skill needed for success in business
- Less than two percent of us have had formal education about listening.
Blocks to Listening
Most of us have blocks to effective listening. Being aware is the first step to changing them.
- We may, like in my experience, feel socially starved. Then we have a tendency to unconsciously deliver a It-Is-All About-Me monologue.
- We may become triggered by something the speaker said. Then we become lost in our own emotional state. You might then need to calm down your own painful feelings.
- We may argue with the speaker’s feelings may escalate into feelings of frustration or even rage. Not so. People who feel heard and validated tend to calm.
- We may jump to the conclusion that the speaker’s problem is our problem. We might end up asking ourselves, “What did I do wrong? What am I supposed to do differently?” Plus many of us may snap into fixing other’s problems.
- We may take over the conversation with inappropriate or uninvited advice.
How do we begin to listen with empathy, not with apathetic uncaring demeanour nor with a smothering, “poor you, pity you” messages?
First, we can begin with Stephen Covey’s most quoted phrase of “seek first to understand the other.” It is the seeking that is key to offering our attention and presence. This search does not require us to agree with the feelings or beliefs of the speaker. It does require openness. I once heard it said, “If you are not willing to change your mind, you are not really listening.” That’s especially true when engaged in disagreement or conflict.
Second, we can read about listening skills (see blogs below) or take a class. Then we practice!
Please commit yourself to improved listening. If you are a raving extrovert, like me, now and then you will lapse into monologues. Add a little self-compassion and get back on track with your listening ears. Your relationships will be enhanced. Just listen!