Listen actively. It’s not enough to just hear the words, while your mind is a million miles away. One must pay attention and focus on what the speaker is trying to say. Then one must ask questions to clarify, advance, and acknowledge what the speaker is trying to say. When this happens, communication is at its best.
Communication is a complicated process. It starts as little more than energy coming from a secret source. Scientists tell us that a thought actually lights up the brain as lightning lights up the sky. And every thought creates a unique electrical pattern, never to be seen or heard from again. The brain, you see, is less like a hard drive where memories are stored and more like a radio that tunes into the frequencies of life.
Once you’ve caught the tune, once you have a thought • which can be an idea, a feeling, a picture, a decision, a sound, a smell, an intention, a desire, a vision, or any other dimension of life, real or imagined • communication involves a complicated process of coding, transmission, and decoding that’s fraught with danger.
How do you take something as ineffable as thought • mere splashes of energy on the canvass of your mind • and turn it into something as fixed and finite as a word? A rose by any other name may still be a rose, but the thought of a rose defies description.
Nevertheless, people have tried countless ways over thousands of years to do just that. “The difference between the right word and almost the right word,” Mark Twain once said, “is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” So we try to get it right. To say what we’re thinking and feeling, to paint the picture freely and clearly, giving substance and form to the mysteries of the human spirit.
I love you. What exactly is the thought here? That I am your friend? That I feel your pain? That I care about your future? That I extend myself for your spiritual growth? That I desire you sexually? That I enjoy your company? That I know your heart’s desire? The nuances for that one go on indefinitely. But so it is with every thought. There’s never just one meaning or interpretation. There’s always a rich panoply of possibilities.
To capture this bountiful bouquet of synaptic significance we must listen actively. What does this mean? Let’s boil it down to some simple techniques:
- Don’t assume that you know what the other person is talking about.
- Let them finish what they’re saying, and think about it, before responding.
- Don’t interrupt.
- Ask questions to clarify what the speaker is saying.
- Suspend judgment.
- Recognize that communication is difficult, and treat it as a powerful stranger.
- Rephrase what you hear. “I hear you saying that•”
- Check out the words as well as the significance of the words.
- Wait for the other person to confirm or clarify your restatement.
- Don’t argue with what the other person is saying.
- Accept that the other person thinks what they think, feels what they feel, and wants what they want.
- Ask questions to advance what the speaker is saying.
- Listen for what is said and not said, for what is clear and what is confused.
- Draw the speaker out.
- Don’t change the subject until the speaker feels satisfied that his or her original thought has been communicated and fully developed.
- Think of yourself as a catalyst for learning rather than as a competitor for airtime.
- Maintain a high commitment to the truth.
- Don’t violate the speaker’s space with probing questions that pry into private areas, unmentioned by the speaker.
- Ask questions to acknowledge what the other person is saying.
- Make sure the speaker feels heard.
Active listening is really the only way to listen. All other listening is a pretense that leaves people empty, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled. Unfortunately, active listening is the exception rather than the rule. In the workplace as well as in the home, we do not practice these skills on a consistent basis. We tease and taunt, push and pull, demand and doubt, criticize and condemn leaving everyone battered and bruised in the process.
Perhaps that’s why so many people find coaching so powerful and refreshing. To have someone listen to you for a good chunk of time, with no other agenda than your agenda, is a rare and beautiful thing. It can make a world of difference and a difference in the world.
But listening doesn’t have to wait for a formal coaching relationship. We can become active listeners in our every day lives by following the principles outlined above. For most of us, this requires an intentional decision. We don’t listen this way naturally. We listen, if we listen at all, with busy, distracted, and devious minds. We want to get our point across, or we just want to get out of the conversation, more than we want to attend to what the other has to say.
No wonder our world suffers from so much brokenness and pain. People tend to listen either apathetically or aggressively, but not actively. Think of the three as falling on a spectrum. Apathetic listening is lazy listening. We may be physically in the room, but we are not paying attention. We have drifted off in quiet distraction, expressing only enough interest to not be rude. Sometimes, especially with those we love the most, we don’t even manage that.
Aggressive listening is agenda driven. Like a debate team before a panel of judges, we listen in order to pounce in rebuttal. Our attack may focus on a breakdown in reasoning or a distortion in fact. As soon as we spot the flaws, we stop listening and start preparing our case. Once we get the floor, we drive our point home with counterarguments, observations, and dismissive remarks. That may fill the bill on certain occasions, but it is not a good way to make people feel listened to or heard.
Active listening lies at neither end of this spectrum. It is, as the name implies, active rather than passive. It takes work. But it is not aggressive, because it focuses more on the other person and their agenda than on ourselves and our agenda. It also trusts that listening actively to the other will shed more light and truth than simply advancing our own cause. By suspending our fear of getting trounced, we become available as the catalyst for conversation and change. We make ourselves vulnerable and, in the process, become a catalyst for conversation and change.
If you want to become a better person and if you want the world to become a better place, then take up the banner of active listening. Let your light shine more by receiving the message of others than by broadcasting your message to others. You’ll be amazed how often that results in a mutual sharing of ideas, feelings, and strategies and in a powerful transformation of one and all.
Coaching Inquires: Who is the best listener in your life? What makes them so? Does their listening make a difference? Do you tend to be more an apathetic, aggressive, or active listener? How could you be a better listener to at least one person today?
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.
This week’s Provision was uncanny. I have been working on a presentation for a management conference where I will be speaking, and this past week I had settled on using the City Slickers’ clip of Curly riding with Billy Crystal and revealing the secret of life. “One thing….” And that’s what we each have to figure out. No one else gives us the answer. To read it in your Provision was affirming and inspiring all over again.
You may not remember me, but we had dinner together at the Future of Coaching conference in San Francisco. I’m in Maryland and just beginning my coaching practice. Anyway, I love your Provision, Just Listen, Being in the Present. I’m now in that transitional period where I am doing workshops on my own and still doing my full time job. One of my workshops is Managing Multiple Priorities. I would like to include your essay in my workshop. I also would like to share the workshop with you. (Ed. Note: Feel free to use that Provision in your workshop. I look forward to hearing from you.)
Good advice. Stay in the present moment. And listen to God here, discover God here, recognize God here. You remain in our prayers as you recover from Isabel.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
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