One of the things that I’m working hard at improving is my active listening skills. It’s something that is often left wanting in comparison to other learned life skills, like speaking and writing. I’m not saying people don’t listen, but if we think about it, how actively are we truly listening and just allowing the information to sink in without comment, judgement or other distractions getting in the way?
I once attended a workshop that was supposed to focus on learning about intuition and how to listen to and follow it, but the class took a bit of a detour into the idea of what listening really meant. One exercise had us sit across from a partner and listen while that partner spoke about anything and everything uninterrupted for 10 minutes. That also meant, that as the listener, we were required to just listen and do nothing else (so no nodding, no sounds of mmmmmm hmmmms or uh huhs, no interjections or opinions, you get the picture). Basically we were just supposed to listen to them and just take in everything they said.
The first few minutes were supremely difficult for me. It’s such a hard thing to just sit silently and listen to someone and not jump in, or add feedback or commiserate with them. And for me, I have a terrible habit of interrupting people by trying to help them finish their thought, so I was bursting at the proverbial seams at the beginning of this exercise. But near the end, I was actually overcome with the most glorious feeling because it was like a weight was lifted off of me. Because the other person had no expectations from me in terms of reaction, I could truly just sit back and listen and not think about appropriate responses or other expected social cues. It was so freeing and so lovely because I actually heard every word that my partner was saying without any distractions.
It was at this point that I realized that I haven’t been listening properly. Like most people, I hear what I want to and ignore the rest. In terms of relationships, it’s not so good. My partner often gets frustrated with me because of my selective listening. Often times, he’ll tell me things, and I’ll nod or make some sort of sound in agreement, but maybe 20 minutes later will ask him the same question forgetting that he had already told me.
If I employed active listening into my regular routine, I wouldn’t have this problem. I also don’t like that I’m not listening fully. I know that when I speak, I expect people to listen to me, and to his credit, my partner does a great job of listening (better than I). I really want to be present and it’s hard, especially with all the distractions that the modern world presents (TV, computers, mobile phones, tablets, etc.) But I know that if it’s something I regularly practice, eventually it will become natural.
Here’s my plan:
- When I’m speaking with someone I will remove all electronic distractions (i.e. put my phone away, turn off the TV, close the lap top etc.)
- I will not interrupt that person at all when they speak, and just quietly listen.
- I will not add any opinions and/or comments when they are speaking, but will wait until I know they are finished before responding.
- I will look at the person in the eye to let them know that I’m listening.
- I will actively listen to what they are saying and not start day dreaming or drift into thoughts about the day and what things I have ahead of me.
I’ll admit, I have failed in the past in terms of keeping up these rules, so continuous reminders like this blog should help me stay on track.
I’ve read all these articles about what makes a successful relationship, and one important key is actually listening to your partner. In fact, sometimes it’s not just the words you are listening to, but the body language and the more subtle clues from your partner’s own personal history. They all come together to form a story, and as an active listener you should be employing all of those things together, which will allow for better understanding of the other person and hopefully a more fulfilling and rewarding relationship.
In a world that’s moving quickly with lots of distractions to keep us busy, getting down to the basics of just listening is fast becoming a lost skill. Strong relationships, whether romantic or platonic should have a strong foundation of mutual listening, so if you want to make your relationship last, one thing you can do to help it is to open your ears and heart.