In the early 1970s I took my first counseling class. This class emphasized the power of listening. They taught that being listened to, clearly heard and understood could help people grow. And grow mightily.
Around that time I took one of my famous stupid jobs. It was stupid because I worked in a halfway house alone at night. No other staff was present. One resident became infuriated at another resident. Her stated intent was to kill her. And she was fast walking toward the other woman.
My only tool was listening. No walky-talky, no backup, none. Remember, it was the 1970s and there were no cell phones or instant communication at all.
So I listened as I walked behind her, slowly repeating a paraphrased version of what she was ranting. I did this repeatedly while panicking.
Suddenly, she stopped. Her body language changed. The tone of her voice softened. And she dropped her weapon.
That’s the magic of listening.
Listening is critical in any relationship. If you want your relationships to work, it’s important to learn to listen to others. It’s crucial in your workplace, friendships, love and intimate partnerships and in your parenting.
Listening is more complex today because we need to communicate via a variety of forms. Telephone, videoconferencing, text, and probably something new invented tomorrow.
No matter the format, we want to communicate effectively. This starts with careful listening to the other person. Instead of listening, perhaps we’ll call this attentioning. This allows for electronic communications.
Attentioning is more than hearing sounds, words, and phrases. It’s an active process of paying attention to someone other than yourself.
Attentioning is active even when texting. You are actively trying to grasp and understand what the other person is attempting to communicate to you. Attentioning is a skill that involves paying attention to the other person with your whole self.
Paying attention with your whole self requires you to:
✓ Care about the message in your heart (feelings)
✓ Listen with your eyes
✓ Listen with your ears
✓ Focus your brain on the speaker’s information
✓ Close your mouth
✓ Listen with your whole body.
✓ Wait until they finish to find out if you understand them.
• Care about the message in your heart (feelings)
Attentioning begins an attitude of willingness. A willingness to take in and comprehend the other person. You’ll need determination to become interested in and care about what the other person has to say.
Decide to understand the other person. And even to make a space in your thinking for the other person to be right.
Clear your mind of out-of-control emotions. Or put them on a shelf. When you are too angry, upset or emotional it’s sometimes better to postpone a conversation until later. Many conversations include feelings that can be a barrier to hearing the other person.
• Pay attention with your eyes
Listen with your eyes. Gestures, facial expressions, eye-movements, hand movements, breathing and body language can all be important. In electronic communication, it’s the spacing of words, and the pauses between communication. Even the types of words they use. Or all caps.
The scientific research on online lying reveals a great deal about it. You can tell a lot by the types of words they use. (See, “Online Dating: How to Know When Someone is Lying to You”.)
• Pay attention with your ears
Hearing the words IS important. The way the person is saying them is equally important. How they use language tells you more about them. Their tone of voice often reveals the feelings they experience. Their speaking pace is how fast or slowly they speak. It tells you more about their motives and emotions.
How they pause between the words can show if they are struggling to express themselves or even if they are being deceptive. Volume gives you more information. Are they yelling? Or speaking almost too softly to hear. It takes all this information to truly understand what the other person is trying to communicate.
• Focus your brain on the speaker’s information
Keep an open mind. Stretch yourself to include their point-of-view. Let go of any opinions and pre-judgements you have formed before this conversation. Put your feelings about them and their ideas on a shelf. Make a mental decision to hear them.
They will include ideas you disagree with. Try to understand what they are communicating anyway. It’s surprising how well people with open minds can dialogue AFTER they have understood the other person.
It’s very difficult sometimes, but try to avoid irritation, impatience, and anger during a difficult conversation.
• Close your mouth
Here are a lot of don’t. It’s difficult but do not interrupt them. Take turns but wait to speak after the other person finishes. Do not try to turn the conversation to your thoughts until after the other person has their say. Don’t offer advice, commiseration, or anything other that listening to them.
When you are silent, it’s real helpful to silently repeat what they are saying. This can help you digest their point of view before your turn.
• Wait and ask questions when you don’t understand.
Timing is critically important. At some point the other person will slow down. It’s a physical thing. You’ll be able to see it. That’s when you try to let them know you’ve heard them. Do this by telling them what you thought they said. Then ask them if that’s what they meant. Believe them when they correct you.
• Listen with your whole body.
These are strategies you can use to focus yourself. If you lean forward toward the other person, you are more likely to pay attention. Then you can listen for the meaning of what the person is trying to tell you.
Put your phone, tablet or computer away. Turn off the television. Put down any papers you have in front of you. With your hand in your lap, you won’t be doodling, moving papers around, checking your email, or playing games on your tablet or phone.
Paying attention to others is magical. If you make an effort to apply the strategies discussed above, you will improve all your relationships. It might take some time, but you will find the quality of all of your interactions greatly enhanced.
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