For most of us really listening is hard.
While we’re pretty good at talking…listening is much more of a challenge.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience of talking with someone and being able to tell that they have already figured out what they are going to say once you stop talking, and are now simply waiting for you to take a breath so they can jump in.
I was at an interview shortly after moving to Dublin, and during the last 10 minutes, one of the two people in the interview had very clearly checked out. To be fair, as the interview went along, I very quickly realised that I was not a good fit, but if I had been in any doubt, a simple glance at this guy made it clear that he was no longer interested in the conversation.
And we’ve all done that to others. Through our body language, facial expressions and responses we demonstrate that we are no longer interested in what they have to say.
Each of us longs to be heard. Not just listened to, but to be understood. And it hurts when someone we want to hear us, doesn’t.
Liz had an experience in our first year in Dublin where she was sharing a personal, very emotional experience with another person. At the end of it, the person made an effort to reflect back on what they heard, and Liz said, “No, that isn’t at all what I said.” So they tried again. Again, “No…that is not what I’m saying…here is what I’m saying.” After three attempts without moving any closer to an understanding, they decided to end the conversation.
When the other person began telling others what Liz said, despite her inability to understand, as you would imagine, it caused a great deal of pain and hurt.
Clearly, that is an extreme case. But while we all desire to be heard and understood, we often encounter is something else.
- You explain a situation to me, and I am thinking of a solution to your dilemma.
- You explain something I did that frustrated, or hurt you, and I am figuring out my defence.
- You read between the lines to figure out what they really mean.
- You are sharing situations and challenges you face in life, and I am getting my pithy advice ready to dispense (“God’s ways are higher than ours,” “God never gives you more than you can handle,” etc.).
For Liz and I, the inability to listen was something that caused a lot of problems early on in our marriage. We didn’t listen to each other. We heard what the other said, and responded in a way that never got to the heart of what was happening. Instead of listening, we defend ourselves from blame, argued over meaningless details, and basically reacted to each other. All the while making each other feel like they were not understood.
Learning to listen was hard. And it took a lot of effort and a lot of good coaches along the way. But it was worth it.
And we know that, so we try. But it’s hard. A few years ago, in an organisation I was part of in the States, it seemed every conversation I had with a leader ended with them telling me “I think you’ve been heard,” or sometimes asking me, “Do you feel as if you were heard?” Actually what it feels like is that one of your national leader meetings included a seminar on active listening, but instead of actually doing it, they learned they worked a couple of the catch phrases into the conversation.
Telling people that “they’ve been heard,” is not the same as listening.
But listening to people…listening with the goal of understanding them is one of the most loving things we can do.