“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ~Stephen Covey
Have you spent much time around small children? It only takes one momentary slip of a ‘bad’ word or a story you’d rather not have repeated to your friends to discover that some of the best listeners in the world are those without phones, tablets, and television occupying their attention. What is it that happens as we get older? Is our attention just called in too many directions, or are we more concerned with being heard than hearing someone else? If we want a better life, we might want to consider being like that small toddler who hears every word spoken, listening well enough to repeat it at inopportune moments instead of, as Covey suggests, giving more attention to what we will say at the next opportunity.
“Do you have a minute to talk?” my friend asked. That is my cue for a different kind of conversation than the one where she is telling me what she needs and I am busy trying to accomplish it at the same time. I put down the computer mouse and picked up a pen. I began writing. I find that if I write down a few notes while someone is speaking, I remember better. It matters to me that I don’t get distracted and miss something important. What she had to say was important, and by listening to understand rather than to reply I was able to be a better friend.
How are your conversational skills? When my children were very young I began teaching them the importance of having a good command of language because it would allow them to walk through any door and converse easily. Have you ever walked into a room or been sitting with a stranger and been at a loss for words? We are never too old, nor too young, to improve our conversational skills.
Whether it is the awkward silence that arises on a first date, the careful exchange with a coworker, or the frantic plea for an ear that comes from a child or friend, conversations are part of our lives, and in those few minutes with that other person we convey how much they matter to us. Are there people you dread having conversations with because you know that they want to do most of the talking, sharing all of their needs, caring little for yours? One of the best rules of conversation, the 50/50 rule. Allow as much for the other person to share as you require. There are times, of course, when someone needs all of our attention, and in those moments we must decide to be present or not be there at all.
I have had coffee with the same friend almost every week for more years than I can remember now. Most weeks we both share what is going on in our life and our family, but some days one of us will say “I need to talk.” It’s a precious time when we can show love for the other by our total commitment to the conversation. She matters to me, and I matter to her. We balance each other with our weeks of needing to dominate the conversation. I have those same rules of conversation with my mother, though I think I probably owe her a few conversations of my sitting quietly. Everyone needs to have a place they can unload and know they are heard. For many years, I paid a professional to be that person because I needed someone who could listen and not criticize, which I hope has taught me to be a better listener. Don’t ever be afraid to try the professional route when needed.
You’ve decided you’d like to be a better listener, a better conversationalist. How does that look, how do you make that happen? Here are few tips for the next time you are with a friend or a stranger:
Step One: Choose to make other people matter to you. If someone has given up time to be with you, decide that they and their words matter. The conversation will never go in the right direction if the other person feels like you are too preoccupied with your own thoughts or your computer or phone.
Step Two: Show a genuine interest in the other person as they are speaking. If they have something they need to spill let them, and really try to hear what they are saying.
Step Three: Save your comments. It’s hard sometimes to hang on to questions that arise in your mind while the other person is talking, but interrupting their train of thought could shut down the whole conversation. When you are the one speaking, be mindful of how long you’ve been the talker.
Step Four: Be respectful. If they’ve asked for your opinion, is doesn’t mean you need to criticize or judge their situation or choices. If they’ve asked for your thoughts, it doesn’t mean to dismantle their self-confidence. If they haven’t asked for your advice don’t offer it. You can’t fix their problems anyway; they usually have to do that for themselves.
Step Five: If someone is brave enough to share something personal, be kind and be grateful that they have trusted you. Keep what they tell you to yourself.
The same rules apply in general for most conversations, even when you are seated with a total stranger. Find conversation starters that are more thoughtful than comments on the weather. For strangers, there is always the question of what brought them to where you both are. As you get to know people, be careful of hot topics like politics, religion, and in my case food choices.
Epictetus once said (and has been quoted often), “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” For some reason, most of us want to be heard, which leads us to monopolize conversations and shut down healthy communication. If we want to be better people, we might start by trying to be better listeners, listening to hear not to be creating our reply.