“The word listen contains the same letters as the word silent.”
— Alfred Brendel, Austrian pianist, poet and author
“I explained this to you already,” she said. “Weren’t you listening?”
Years ago, I started a new job and the manager was not the best trainer. She had little patience with new staff. I remember her showing me something once then asking, “Go it?” When I asked for clarity, I got the above response. I was listening but wasn’t being heard.
Part of the job involved operating one of the early electronic cash registers and I couldn’t for the life of me get the device to co-operate.
Usually, I would ask for help from one of the other cashiers who would grudgingly cancel my transaction and re-enter the numbers. If the other tellers where busy or unwilling, I was forced to seek out the manager and that was never pleasant.
“Do you think I talk just to hear myself speak?”
I tried to explain that I was a hands-on learner but she didn’t want to hear it. Telling me once how to do something and then leaving me to my own devices had never worked well. I needed to ask questions, hold it, touch it — experience it.
Even as a child I used to frustrate my father by insisting he walk me through a particular task step by step. He would often ask me the same pointed question. I never quite knew how to answer him so usually I didn’t. And it seemed the more nervous I became, the more mistakes I made and less competent I felt. Today I would be referred to as a kinesthetic or experiential learner. Essentially, someone who learns best by doing it. As for the job, I was eventually terminated — found unsuitable for the position.
One of the most basic of all human needs is to be heard and understood. It has been my experience that most people are not good listeners. As Stephen J. Covey, author of the New York Times best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, once said, “Most people don’t listen with the intent of understanding — they listen with the intent to reply.”
Effective communication is always a two-way street. The onus falls on both parties to ensure the time, place and topic are appropriate for the discussion.
To keep the conversation on track, start by establishing clear guidelines or ground rules prior to beginning the dialogue. Remember, if you’re asking to be heard, you too will need to be a good listener.
I think most of us would agree that having someone listen intently to what we say makes us feel better both mentally and physically. Being heard is important because it validates our thoughts and feelings. Remember the frustration, anger and hurt you felt the last time you shared something important with someone who didn’t appear to listen. Perhaps you felt intimidated and powerless — maybe your sense of self-worth went down as your frustration and anxiety level went up. In therapy sessions, I often tell my clients to talk while I listen and that’s just what I do: listen intently, take notes and observe. Being listened to is cathartic and many of my clients claim to feel profoundly better for being able to speak their minds.
In Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, at least three of the five levels he describes deal with mental and emotional aspects, rather than the physical. A sense of belonging, of self-worth and self-actualization are needs of the mind. Effective listening enables us to learn what those needs are for ourselves and for others. Breakthroughs happen when we learn to listen to our own inner voice. Says Maslow, “Listening is a window to what’s going on inside.”
To what degree do you listen to your colleagues, friends and family members? Are you mentally preparing your response while they speak? If so, you’re not being an effective listener.
The next time you listen, make a conscious effort to be engaged and give the speaker your full attention. Listen without mentally formulating a response; then pause before you do respond.
Finally, respond with a question rather than an answer — one that asks the speaker to further clarify the situation. Ask how the speaker feels about what has just been shared. If the sharing involves a problem, ask for solutions instead of immediately offering suggestions. I am amazed how many times clients provide effective solutions to their own deep-seated problems.
I remember my grandfather sharing a piece of sage advice with me. He said, “Sometimes you don’t need the answer. You just need someone to listen when you ask the question.”
The frustration of not being heard illustrates the strong link between listening and self-esteem. When someone listens to you, you feel good about yourself. You also tend to feel good about the listener. Likewise, when you listen to someone, you are telling the speaker that he or she is important and that you are interested in what he or she has to say. You are saying, “I respect you and your thoughts. You are worth listening to and have things of value to say.”
Karl Menninger, an American psychiatrist and author of the landmark volume, Man against Himself, once said, “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”
It’s interesting to note that the Chinese symbol for listening consists of 10 distinct elements combining words like ear, eye, heart, sense and respect. When you listen with your ears, eyes and heart, you truly begin to comprehend the other person’s context, emotion and intentions.
There will be no need to ask, “Do you think I talk just to hear myself speak?”
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.