I’m in complete agreement with what Kate Murphy writes about the positive results of careful listening in her January 12th New York Times editorial, titled “Lessons in the Lost Art of Listening.”
Murphy says, “When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone or jumping in to offer your opinion? And when was the last time someone really listened to you? Was so attentive to what you were saying and whose response was so spot on that you felt truly understood?”
Feeling truly understood by another person seems rare these days, as Murphy put it so well. It takes a quality of experience that in modern life seems nearly impossible to achieve—a person being fully engaged in listening deeply to you. It flows from the person being committed to putting distractions aside and giving you their undivided attention. In so doing, the person can enable you to be open about what is going on in your life without reservation. And it can result in you bringing to the surface feelings that you may not have realized you were having.
Ways of listening can be tailored to the need of a person. I talked a few years go with a co-author of our book, “Conflict—The Unexpected Gift.” I was giving her my perspective about a situation, in which I thought I was being unfairly treated by an organization. I continued talking at length until I finally took a breath and stopped talking. My co-author said, “Jack, you seem to be telling me that you have done nothing wrong that could possibly have caused you to be treated so badly by the organization, and that you are feeling very distressed as a result of the unwarranted actions they have taken toward you. Did I get that right?” I was instantly struck that she seemed to have such an intuitive grasp of the reality of my being. She heard a deep level of stress and discomfort that I had hidden from myself. What she said led to me gaining a sudden and profound understanding of what actually was going on inside me.
Listening with the level of care that’s involved in listening to another person with deep understanding builds trust between people. A relationship built on a foundation of trust and deep understanding is not easy, but the outcomes are worth the effort. A reader of Murphy’s editorial subsequently wrote a letter to the editor about being married to the only person who has ever truly listened to her. Here is what she said: “He had a knack for turning his face to mine when I spoke, and focusing his gaze directly on my eyes. It felt as if he was looking into me. He would sit silently and never interrupt. When he was sure that I was done, he would then respond directly to the topic of my statement, either by a clarifying question or a related comment to continue our discussion to its natural end.”
Sometimes a person who asks for your advice regarding a problematic situation in their lives is not really looking for tips but rather for an opportunity to talk at length with someone they trust in such a way that they can arrive at their own solution. I found this to be true when my teenage daughter would come to me saying, “Dad, I need your advice.” I typically put down the newspaper I was reading and turned toward her to hear what she had to say. At various points in her account when I would suggest an option for her to consider, she would respond by saying either “I’ve already thought of that” or “That will never work.” I finally stopped giving her tips, realizing she wasn’t really looking for my advice at all. Rather, she needed me to listen to her so she could hear her own words while she explored pros and cons of various options and ultimately came down on the best one. Being heard by me enabled her to rely on her own judgment, and increased the mutual trust between us.
I’ve learned that one should simply listen well and remain open to the speaker’s need to be heard.