Listen First! The Art of Engaging

Have you ever been talking to someone about something really important to you, but stopped in mid-story because you knew the other person was not listening? I have these experience quite often–in meetings–with supervisors, on the phone with customer service, even with friends who should be hanging on my every word! When the person launches into a story of her own (that has nothing to do with what you were saying), it simply adds insult to injury. Why are people so rude, so unconcerned, and so…not tuned in? Most people simply do not understand how to listen.

There is a difference between listening and hearing. Hearing involves the simple physical action of processing sound. Hearing is an essentially inactive process–unless you have a physical impairment, no real effort needs to be made by you to “hear” anything. In fact, if left in an environment for too long, many noises become little more than a background soundtrack to your life, like your heartbeat or breathing. I grew up in rural Mississippi where trains and crickets were an everyday occurrence. I never realized how loud insects can be until I moved away from home. Whenever I go to visit, the first night seems absolute cacophony with all the chirping and barking and mooing. But eventually, the sounds fade away again. For most people the human voice is like the sounds of nature–it simply fades into the background because we hear it so much, on TV., at team meetings, in public places (especially with cell phones). The human voice has surrounded us in the way that nature used to, and so we’ve relegated the sound to the place where Muzak and television exist.

Listening however is an active process. When listening, you are taking in sound, considering it, making a decision about it, and in some cases responding to it. Real listening makes you tired, as it requires not only your ears but body posture and cognitive processes. When actively listening you ask yourself learning questions: what is important? What should I take away from this? How can I use this information later? You connect the information to old memories or having none that match, create a new space for that information to go.

Most people do not listen–they engage in what I call “preemptive thinking”. When a subject arises, most people have already formed an opinion and rather than listening to what others have to say, begin rehearsing their responses over and over in their minds. Remembering what we want to say has replaced the listening process. By not listening, we cut ourselves off from enriching information, miss opportunities to encourage and involve ourselves with others, and ultimately fail to allow others to affect us. Moreover, if we just stop and listen we can avoid misunderstandings. When we listen instead of preemptively think, we began to attend to the voice of the other person: not just the sound, but the words, emotion, and unspoken meaning hidden inside body language and register of the voice.

God bless, and stop preemptive thinking: listen to the world around you! Listening is becoming a lost art–but it does not have to be lost in you. Be a real listener!

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