On Listening, Part 1 -- Slow to Speak: How Listening Enhances Relationship

                                                           To be heard, to be listened to
to not have to repeat oneself,
to have another’s attention—to the fullest;
to be heard, and yes, hopefully, even understood,
to be questioned—in the most positively engaging way,
to be known, but not from their perspective, but from your own.
to be friends, despite disagreement;
to not have to debate your way through a conversation,
to not have jokes ruin a pin-drop moment,
to not have a solemn face ruin an attempt at laughter
to experience reciprocation—like looking in a mirror!
to express evil within, without him leaning back,
to let light into darkness, without her checking out emotionally,
to be transparent and yet not afraid,
to be known to the inner depths,
to walk and talk with no eggshells beneath your feet,
to not have to censor, or auto-correct
to not speak as though before the courts
to have advice as an option, rather than a requirement
to confide without consequence
to entrust sacred stories without later embarrassment
to get your point across
to not be cut off in mid-sentence
to be heard, to be listened to, to be understood.

When I wrote that poem, I wrote it for me, but since then I have discovered that its words have pierced many hearts.  It paints the picture of a potential future, a vision of something beautiful.  To be understood is so important, yet, with all this noise, all this chatter, it is not happening very much.  What I also think resonates with people is the phrase, “You’re not listening to me!”  Sometimes it is communicated as explicit as that.  Other times the person left misunderstood walks away with bitter heartache and a cold shoulder.  Whatever the outward response, the internal experience extends across gender, age and cultural lines.  Communication is listed as one of the highest causes of divorce.  I mention marriage not to target married persons, but to reveal the impact that bad communication has on relationships—even relationships that are supposed to be as open, committed and supportive as marriage.  Yet… we all see how communication fails even in the most ‘compatible’ of marriages, so where is the breakdown?

The Communication Breakdown

Communication 101, which is taught in colleges, should really be called Speech (and sometimes is).  We learn the history, the mechanics and even get to practice public speaking.  Yet, speech (or one-way communication) is only one form under the larger umbrella of communication studies.  Learning speech provides crucial gains to any politician, business presenter or slam poet.  Yet the rest of us spend most of our time in the world of two-way communication—as in, conversation.  This is where Communication 101 helps only half-way.  TED Speaker Julian Treasure puts it this way: “The art of conversation is being replaced by personal broadcasting.”  Where is the breakdown?  It’s us.  It’s our over-emphasis on being understood rather than seeking to understand.  That, my friends, is the communication breakdown.

What’s the Difference?

There are many reasons for misunderstanding to occur.  New Song Church cites one such issue when they were trying to bring two races together under one roof.  During meetings at night, one Pastor quickly noticed that the attendance was predominantly white congregants while the black members were not attending.  Since the church was fairly even in its black-to-white demographic, the church’s pastor wondered why there was not representation from the black community.  This could have led to an assumption about the community involvement, but the Pastor refused to come to any such conclusion without further research.  Upon asking members of the community, the answer was simply that the black members of that community ate dinner much later, which kept them at home with their families.  The church quickly adjusted their meeting time to address their cultural insensitivity.  What could have happened if the Pastor assumed the white way of doing dinner to be the right way?

Facebook has an image floating around with the phrase, “I have nothing to wear” splitting the top of the image from the bottom.  On the top, the pink stick figure woman is about to go shopping, while on the bottom, the blue stick figure man is about to do laundry.  This is not only an example of gender difference (generally), but of semantic differences.  Words are so tricky.  In the course of my study at Moody, I have learned to look for the meaning behind the words rather than locking people into its dictionary definition.  Why?  Because it is the person who speaks who owns the meaning of the message.

We have talked about cultural, gender and semantic differences.  Lastly, I want to talk about experience differences.  Daniel Goleman, when speaking at Google, notes that our initial emotional experiences are highly affected by our primary relationships and our primary events.  I see this in premarital counseling when the counselor asks the man and the woman to note their parents’ ways of doing things: doing chores, engaging in sex, handling money, communicating, dealing with conflict etc.  If this inventory is not done and shared, then both parties enter into a union with expectations that are likely to be broken.  Why? Because they have been brought up in an environment that either explicitly or implicitly taught them certain values. 

If that’s not enough, here is an example of experience.  I research, read, write, memorize and engage via media on my computer.  In other words, I use my computer a lot.   On occasion, out of laziness, I do not pack up my computer or lock the office when leaving momentarily.  Potentially a guest at the hotel I work at could freely walk by my computer and walk off with it.  Despite the numerous cameras, the locked doors and the loud, detectable sounds of a person approaching, I almost freak out every time I get back to the office.  To the onlooker, this would seem like paranoia.  One might inquire, “What kind of man compulsively checks the location of his computer?”  Well… me.  You see, on Feb 28th, I was a called as a witness in court.  Present were five police officers, visible cameras and a judge who was in the process of giving verdicts regarding theft.  After giving a brief statement, I went back to my seat, grabbed my bag and left the court room. Yet… I thought, “That’s odd, my bag feels a lot lighter.”  Despite the security in the room, my computer was stolen out from under me—literally.  My computer had tax information, important school documents and loads of personal goodies.  Gone, all gone!  I do not explain this story to receive sympathy.  I share this to reveal the story behind the compulsion, behind the constant computer checking.  So, you be the judge: is that unjustified paranoia or is concern based on experience?

So what do we do about these differences?  Getting to know the person and where he or she is coming from is the first step.  Stephen R. Covey answered this concern years ago.  In his acclaimed book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” he tilts our ego-centric world on its axis.  Covey says, “Understand then be Understood.”  To be certain, listening to another’s point of view and story does not mean you are giving up your own right to be heard.  Yet without getting to know someone, we will not be able to be sensitive to each individual’s experience, gender, culture and communication differences.

Why Learning to Listen is Important (to me)

It is ironic that I have failed so much.  I grew up in need of listening but often was not heard.  This led to isolating myself through videogames and a great deal of depression.  One might think that my pain would develop me into a great listener.  In some ways it has.  However, I still have those times where my moments of childhood resonate with me today.  The phrase “you’re not listening to me,” is an ever-repeating voice in my head.  It leads me to insist on being understood.  It does not lead me to understand first.

I have lost friends.  I have lost romantic relationships.  I come at this now as a learner and as a failure.  I have been the antithesis at times of Covey by forcing others to hear me out before hearing them.  And it has come at a cost.  Even recently I have let my assumptions get in the way of hearing out a dear friend.  Why is listening so important? Because without it, trust diminishes.  And without trust, relationships cannot continue.

I suspect that I am not alone.  We all know those moments were a word escapes our mouth that we cannot take back.  Perhaps the moment of realization for some is immediate while others have to “cool their jets” before they can see their blunder.  I’ve done both.  The Book of James in the Bible says that we should be, “. . . quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20) What about you?  Do you send emails that you wish you could take back?  Do words escape your mouth out of anger?  If so, please continue in a few days for Part 2 of this article on listening, “Ears to Hear: The Heart and Hands of Listening.”

© Colin Barrett, 2014

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