"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
During my first year of teaching school, I discovered that there were many things I did not learn in college. For instance, there was never a class on dealing with parent-teacher conferences, or a class on dealing with parents who, even after four years of school, had a hard time leaving their children at the door every morning. No one ever taught me how to get around the gossip-mill called the teacher's lounge and no one ever taught me that children, in most cases, have never been taught how to listen.
Now, it's been a couple of years since I was in the classroom, but I'm bringing this up now because everywhere I look, it seems that people have not learned this skill. If you look at the definition of listening, it says, "to make an effort to hear." OK, I think I see the problem right away...to make an effort. Listening requires effort, work. It's not a passive activity.
When I was a little girl, a LONG time ago, I had an aunt who was very hard of hearing. She had two hearing aides which, in those days, were very big things that she plugged into her ears. They squeaked and made funny noises and I always wondered how she could hear with them. Even with these, we had to talk very loudly to be sure that she heard us. She had to make an effort to hear, and even then she missed a lot of what was said to her. It took a great deal of effort on her part and on the part of the speaker to be sure that the conversation was understood.
I think listening requires more than just two good ears or even two good hearing aides. With today's technology the hearing aides are much smaller and much more effective, but we're still not hearing each other as we speak. Listening requires more than just hearing the words that are spoken. According to Dr. Larry Nadig, there are three basic listening modes:
- Competitive or Combative Listening happens when we are more interested in promoting our own point of view than in understanding or exploring someone else’s view. We either listen for openings to take the floor, or for flaws or weak points we can attack. As we pretend to pay attention we are impatiently waiting for an opening, or internally formulating our rebuttal and planning our devastating comeback that will destroy their argument and make us the victor.
- In Passive or Attentive Listening we are genuinely interested in hearing and understanding the other person’s point of view. We are attentive and passively listen. We assume that we heard and understand correctly, but stay passive and do not verify it.
- Active or Reflective Listening is the single most useful and important listening skill. In active listening we are also genuinely interested in understanding what the other person is thinking, feeling, wanting or what the message means, and we are active in checking out our understanding before we respond with our own new message. We restate or paraphrase our understanding of their message and reflect it back to the sender for verification. This verification or feedback process is what distinguishes active listening and makes it effective.
I have a very dear friend. She and I can visit with each other and understand each other with very little work. We've known each other a long time and we've worked over the years to understand the meanings of our words when we communicate. It wasn't always easy. It took a lot of years, but it's much easier for us now to understand each other. On the other hand, with all of my new friends I have to work much harder to be certain that I understand the meaning of their words and they me. Here's an example:
I have a new friend who is a widow. She has asked me on several occasions what I do, as a single, middle-aged woman, to fill all my time. She has an interest in starting a single women's club. I think her vision is to create a large group to come together on an in-frequent basis with small groups forming with specific interests, such as needlework, singing, theater, eating out, etc. I think there is a lot of merit in this idea and through my work we'll probably start a group in the fall. When I was sharing this idea with another friend this week, her immediate understanding of what I said was "single's club," complete with match-ups and dates. Now I said nothing about men in this conversation but through her "filter," her life experiences, that's what she heard. We had to work a little harder to understand the meaning behind the words we were sharing. We had to make an effort to hear correctly.
As adults, we set examples for the children in our lives for everything that we do. When we listen to them as we're watching a television show or texting on our phones, we're not really attentively listening to them and they learn that this is the proper way to listen to others. Listen is a verb. It requires action, it requires work, it requires time. I worry sometimes that in our age of Facebook and cell phones that we're losing the depth of our listening. We're only hearing the words, and not the meanings. I'm not saying that I think these things are bad. I certainly use them and appreciate them every day, but I believe they just mean that we have to work a little harder, put forth a little more effort, to listen to each other. These tools are good beginnings, but we must continue the work of listening past these channels to really hear and thus build our relationships, whether they be with our friends, our family, our co-workers, or our children.
Take some time today to really listen to the people around you. Really being listened to and heard is a wonderful gift to give and all it takes is a little effort.
"To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.”