Recently I received this question: Both my 21-year-old and my 15-year-old have told me that I don’t listen to them, so I know it’s bad. What might I do differently?
It’s a great question because it reveals such a common problem: Listening is so basic that we take it for granted. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to listen well because we never really understood what it is: listening is just listening.
Listening is a critical social skill. When you really listen to someone, special things happen. Upsets disappear. Ideas emerge. New thinking appears. People open up. Self-esteem soars.
Yet we don’t listen very often, at least not in a way that is magical. We listen mostly to follow what is being said without truly understanding it or taking it in. We interrupt. We finish other people’s sentences. We pretend to listen. Sometimes we don’t even pretend. We listen half-heartedly as we plan what we’re going to say next or allow our attention to wander elsewhere. Certainly we don’t often purposely make a difference to someone just by listening.
Ever notice that some people are just great to be around? You just feel good when you are with them. If you observe these people, you begin to realize that part of what’s so special is the way in which they listen.
With some perspective on what it means to really listen, and then with the intention to practice, we can shift very quickly toward listening in that magical way.
Michael Nichols’ book The Lost Art of Listening points out the essence and impact of listening:
- To listen well, we must forget ourselves and submit to the other person’s need for attention.
- The gift of our attention and understanding makes the other person feel validated and valued.
- To listen is to pay attention, take an interest, care about, take to heart, validate, acknowledge, be moved, appreciate.
- Being heard means being taken seriously.
- Not being listened to is hard on the heart.
- Reassuring is not listening.
- Problem solving is not listening.
- Giving advice is not listening.
Listening without resisting, changing, or adding to a conversation is listening.
When you put the world on hold and give your full attention to someone, you are creating a place where authentic conversation can occur. Why? Because when people sense that you are truly listening, they usually respect that gift by speaking with purpose and authenticity. They speak in a way that gives you access to their world and their soul. What a gift, especially from your teenager!
I’ve been presenting a listening exercise in workshops for over 30 years, and even though we’re all experienced at speaking and listening, this exercise always changes how people listen.
During the exercise, the person listening can’t say anything at all. It’s actually about devoting your complete attention to the person who is speaking so they truly feel heard. We used topics like these:
- What are some of your favorite memories?
- When you dream or think about the future, what is it like?
- Tell me about your friends and what you like about them.
- What do you lie awake at night worrying about?
In the first two rounds, family members split up and worked with people they didn’t know. My intent was to get everyone comfortable with the listening process before they talked within their own families. Then parents and children had a chance to practice listening to each other, giving each other the experience of being listened to. A couple of weeks later, I received an e-mail from Andrea, one of the participants.
Last night my fourteen-year-old daughter, Chelsea, came home and said, “Mom, I need to talk. If you can listen to me the way we learned the other evening, you can save me a three-mile bicycle ride to my friend’s house.”
I loved that. What a difference it can make to simply listen in a different way.
If you practice really listening whenever your kids talk to you, they may not thank you. But they won’t tell you that you don’t listen to them!
P.S. There’s a great article on listening on the website. It’s free to download, along with lots of other resources. Enjoy!