Listen slowly. It takes time and patience to really listen to people. We have to be quiet to hear what they’re saying and, perhaps, to hear what they cannot hear themselves. When this happens we become powerful listeners. We become magnets for meaning, mystery, and magic.
As some of you read this, I will be running the New York City Marathon • 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers) through all 5 boroughs of the City. I’ll let you know next week how it turns out. But this much is certain: it takes a lot of listening to run a marathon.
First, there’s the listening that goes into why you want to run a marathon in the first place. I call this “spirit listening.” At different times the answers are different; the wrong answers can lead to injury or even death. By paying attention to the still, small voice of inspiration, training for and running a marathon becomes a thing of beauty and grace. When it becomes an ego thing, it’s easy to twist the marathon into something it’s not. It takes time, and continual listening, to sort this out.
Then, there’s the listening that goes into the training phase of the program. I call this “body listening.” Is a particular sensation an injury, requiring a lay off or a therapeutic intervention to recover from? Or is it something you can work with and run through, without causing additional discomfort or difficulty? Are you working too hard or not hard enough? Inquiring minds want to know, and there’s no better advisor than your own body, if you but take the time to listen and pay attention.
There’s also the listening that relates to the growing body of knowledge behind marathon training and pacing. I call this “scientific listening.” When I ran my first marathon, 20 years ago, there were a few books, a little science, and even fewer products designed to assist you to train smart and go the distance on race day. Today, all that has changed. We know more than ever before and keep learning new things. Recommendations, such as those regarding hydration, can change dramatically from one decade to the next. It takes time to stay on top of this body of knowledge, but the listening pays big dividends in the end.
Finally, there’s the listening that takes place on race day itself. I call this “environmental listening.” I know runners who get into a zone where they see and hear no one and nothing, from start to finish. That, it seems to me, is an unfortunate squandering of great fun. In New York City, there will be 2 million spectators lining the streets of the course. There’s much to hear as 60,000 feet pound across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, as Gospel Choirs and Salsa Bands make music, and as Hasidic Jews rock forward and back in watchful silence. You can take a virtual tour on line, Click, but I’m going after the real thing.
All these dimensions of listening share one thing in common: they take time. There’s no other way to listen well. We cannot be active, reflective, or deep listeners when we’re feeling impatient and in a hurry. We cannot pay attention and enjoy the conversation when we have other things on our mind. We cannot discover new wisdom and truth when our agenda takes precedence over everything else.
Unfortunately, impatience, distraction, and self-assertion describe an increasingly permanent condition rather than a passing occurrence. An African proverb reminds us, “Hurry, hurry is no blessing.” That is the state of the world in which many of us live today. We accept more responsibilities than anyone can handle, crazily trying to get everything done. Success has come to be defined in terms of how many balls we can juggle and how fast a pace we can maintain. Then we wonder why our health, relationships, and quality of life suffer.
Changing the subject prematurely reflects the problem many of us have not only with listening but also with time management and being in the present moment. We’re one step ahead of ourselves, or one step behind, but seldom truly attentive to the here and now.
We’re quick to come up with answers, to tell people what’s on our mind, and to voice our opinions, rather than to patiently ask questions that will draw out the speaker. It is, of course, impossible to not have our own ideas. Someone tells us something and connections are made, solutions are seen, and alternatives are explored. That is a normal part of conversation. But when we share these things too soon, when we change the subject too quickly, we send the message: I’m more interested in me than you.
Some would call this the human condition, to be self-interested. But there is another urge in the human soul, equally deep and powerful: to be connected. To know that we are not alone. To share an unspeakable bond with others and with the Holy Other. To hear a new idea and to see something new under the sun. To call forth something greater than we can come up with on our own. To experience the synchronicity of life, as we invite and recognize the positive convergence of apparently unrelated coincidences.
All these wonderful things require that we listen well. And good listening requires that we slow down. It is not possible to be a good listener and to be in a hurry. It is not possible to multitask. That may work for computers, although even there it fails to work well, but it definitely does not work for people. Listening requires that we stop the train and get off.
It’s really not unlike the process of eating. If we eat fast and wolf down our food, or if we eat mindlessly in front of the television or while we work at the computer, our enjoyment of the food diminishes and our tendency to overeat increases. But if we slow down and look at our food with a spirit of wonder and thanksgiving, the meal becomes an experience of communion.
Look at the table during a meal and you can often tell who’s been doing the most listening. My wife, who is the best listener in our family, is often the last one to finish eating. Those who eat fast tend to talk and load, talk and load, without paying attention to what anyone is saying. As a result, we both fail to enjoy our food and fail to listen to the conversation of others.
Fortunately we can learn to listen • and eat • slowly. Poor listening is not a genetic trait, although it does run in families. Adults who do not listen well raise children who do not listen well. But when you get tired of talking without ever hearing or being heard, you can make a change. You can learn to be quiet long enough to hear what someone else is saying. With practice, you can even learn to be quiet long enough to hear what someone else cannot hear for himself or herself and does not know how to express.
That is the point at which you become a powerful listener. As someone who listens slowly, you empower people to become more deeply aware of and connected to what they are trying to say. Slow listening may have been on Wilferd A. Peterson’s mind when he wrote the poem Slow Me Down, Lord in his book The Art of Living: Thoughts on Meeting the Challenge of Life.
Slow me down, Lord!
Ease the pounding of my heart
By the quieting of my mind.
Steady my harried pace
With a vision of the eternal reach of time.
Give me, amidst the confusion of my day,
The calmness of the everlasting hills.
Break the tensions of my nerves
With the soothing music of the singing streams
that live in my memory.
Help me to know the magical restoring power of sleep.
Teach me the art of taking minute vacations of slowing down
to look at a flower; to chat with an old friend or make a new one;
to pat a stray dog; to watch a spider build a web;
to smile at a child; or to read a few lines from a good book.
Remind me each day that the race is not always to the swift;
That there is more to life than increasing its speed.
Let me look upward
Into the branches of the towering oak.
And know that it grew great and strong
Because it grew slowly and well.
Slow me down, Lord,
And inspire me to send my roots deep
Into the soil of life’s enduring values
That I may grow toward the stars
Of my greater destiny.
You too can take “minute vacations of slowing down.” Try that the next time you’re listening to someone and you’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.
Coaching Inquiries: Are you in too much of a hurry to listen well? How could you slow yourself down? Is there one person you could listen to, with your undivided attention, for at least 30 minutes? Why not do so, 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.
I really got a jolt from last week’s Provision. I realized how much I interfere in conversations and finish sentences for people, particularly in a casual conversation. When I’m talking to cancer patients I can listen intently and let them finish their sentences. Maybe I can tell the difference between serious conversations and casual ones and maybe do the right thing SOMETIMES!!!! I really love your letters. They are my second sermon for Sundays! And I DO listen to them.
A colleague of mine ran her first marathon two weeks ago. The Towpath. A friend of hers passed along this quote. You may find it helpful when coaching other first timers. “There will be days when you don’t know if you can run a marathon. There will be a lifetime of knowing that you have.”
Thanks for your article about active listening. I’ve heard about it before in counseling. Good to have a reminder course.
I love your LifeTrek coaching Provisions! I’ve been reading it (when time allows) on my lunch break at work for a couple of months and it is full of wisdom and insight. You truly have a wonderful gift. May GOD continue to bless you.
In your last Provision, I especially appreciated the reinforcement of Julia Cameron’s journaling as a way toward deep listening.
Years ago, when I was in my late 20’s, I worked out hard every day for 2-3 hours with the goal of participating in a women’s Fitness contest. I came in 3rd place in my first contest, and decided to work even harder to come in 2nd or 1st the following year. I ended up with a pinched nerve under my rib cage, and was ordered by my physician to get off the nautilus machines and weight lifting for a while. That “while” has ended up in 14 years of just stretching and walking, and now that I’m 41, I want to get back to my workouts • not for competition, but to get my muscle tone back and to look and feel good. Do you have any recommendations to start out and gradually get pumped up again? (Ed. Note: Sounds like your spirit and body are talking! It’s good you are listening. Give me a call when you get a chance for a complimentary coaching session.)
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
Phone: (757) 345-3452 • Fax: (772) 382-3258
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