Have you ever had the experience of another person truly listening to what you were saying? This means 100% focused listening – not glancing down at a phone, not mentally composing a grocery list and not simply waiting his/her turn to begin to talk? Sometimes we are so distracted by the moving world around us, and our own need to express ourselves, that we fail to slow down and truly hear what another person has to say. You are given a gift when someone truly listens to you – a gift to notice and appreciate. And like so many times when people give a gift of themselves, one of the best things we can do is share that gift with others.
It is not always easy to be attentive to the words of others. We may struggle to listen to another person when an opinion that differs from ours is expressed. As we hear a contrary viewpoint, we mentally formulate our responding arguments. We often fail to consider a perspective another person has spent years forming based on their character traits and life experiences. As a good listener, our job is not necessarily to agree with someone else, but rather to simply hear what they are saying. If we are truly listening, we can clarify what they have said, and in turn ask that they hear the opinions we hold close to our own hearts. Others’ mindsets can change, but we often overestimate our influence alone in making this happen. We can show our respect to others by truly listening to their ideas and hopefully having a respectful exchange. And, if we are close to this person, ideally we work hard to remember that our relationship is more important than our differences in opinion.
Sincere listening leads to the ability to acknowledge another person’s feelings. We pay attention to what someone is expressing and we let them know we are trying to understand. This allows us to help lift a burden from someone’s shoulders and frees them to move forward. I remember wheeling young children in carts around the grocery store, trying to plow forward despite their howls and ignoring the pointed glares from other patrons. I especially cringe when I think of the time my toddler’s shoe had fallen off and I assumed she was pointing toward something she wanted me to buy, so I rushed on and pretended not to hear her. Stopping for a few minutes and picking up a dropped shoe – or acknowledging the fact that the little one is tired, hungry, frustrated or bored – can sometimes be enough to eliminate the need for shouting. The older we get, the more complicated emotions become. If we feel that others care enough to recognize our expressions of anxiety, depression, disappointment, anger, etc., we can be free to look for ways to feel better. We can experience much less isolation and much more connection.
Sometimes listening involves stepping up our ability to ask other people questions. Many of us are lucky enough to have people in our lives who not only ask “How are you?” but actually stop and wait for the answer. It has become a societal ritual to utter that phrase – not really expecting details in response – and it is more than a little refreshing to know that someone actually wants to hear about you. If only one person is the true listener in a conversation, the other person is likely feeling more resentful about the lopsided nature of the interaction, rather than interested in what is being shared with them. We give a no-cost, powerful gift of ourselves when we invite someone to answer our questions and we listen with enthusiasm.
As the great American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau said, “It takes two to speak the truth – one to speak, and another to hear.” Sometimes our life circumstances will make it easier to be the listener, and sometimes we will be the ones who speak to be heard. Everyone we honestly listen to teaches us something about themselves, and the larger world around us. After all, the surest way we can know what it is like to walk in another person’s shoes is to truly listen to what they have to say.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 and is an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.