The difficult art of listening

“Do you think I talk just to hear myself speak?” I never quite knew how to answer that question, so usually I didn’t. My father would ask it whenever he felt I wasn’t paying attention or listening carefully enough to his instructions. His booming voice both frightened and intimidated me; thus the harder I tried to listen, the less I heard. Or perhaps more accurately, the less able I was to comprehend the message.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”

— Bryant H. McGill, American author, aphorist, speaker and activist

“Do you think I talk just to hear myself speak?”

I never quite knew how to answer that question, so usually I didn’t. My father would ask it whenever he felt I wasn’t paying attention or listening carefully enough to his instructions. His booming voice both frightened and intimidated me; thus the harder I tried to listen, the less I heard. Or perhaps more accurately, the less able I was to comprehend the message.

One of the first milestones in life is learning to speak, but learning to listen is equally important. We’re taught initially to listen to our parents and later to our educators and employers, but few of us are taught to be good listeners — that is, engaged and grounded listeners who are able to examine, challenge and make sense of the information we are hearing.

As Ralph G. Nichols — founder of the Field of Listening and inductee into the International Listening Association (ILA) — so aptly expressed, “One of the most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

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 him or her as a person. You are saying, “I respect you and your thoughts. You are worth listening to and have things to say that are of value.”

Having someone listen makes us feel better 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 stress and anxiety went up.

Why is listening such a vital skill? According to Bernard Ferrari, author of Power Listening, “Good listening is the key to developing fresh insights and ideas that fuel success.” Says Ferrari, many people focus a tremendous amount of effort on communicating and presenting their own views effectively but put little “sweat” into learning to listen and hear the view of others.

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 present 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.

Keep in mind, 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.

And speaking of respect, good listeners always show respect for other people’s thoughts and ideas. When respect is demonstrated, respect is often reciprocated. Good listeners don’t interrupt or give lectures about why they have all the answers. They ask respectful questions that help to unearth new ideas and solutions. The next time you’re involved in a brainstorming session, sit back and watch the antics of the group and try to recognize the good listeners.

OK, sometimes interrupting might be necessary to redirect the conversation along a more advantageous path but do so judiciously and with respect. Remember, good listeners seek to understand and perhaps challenge assumptions that lie below the surface of most conversations.

Practice this 80/20 exercise the next time you have a conversation: let your conversation partner speak 80 per cent of the time while you speak only 20 per cent of the time. And use your 20 per cent wisely by asking good questions rather than trying to sway the conversation toward your side of the argument. Admittedly, it can be challenging to suppress the urge to speak more than to listen but with practise and patience, you can learn to weigh in at exactly the right time.

It’s interesting to note 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.

Karl Menninger, American psychiatrist and co-founder of the Menninger Clinic 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.”

In the same way that some people are better writers than others, some people are naturally better listeners. With practise and patience, you can learn to be a more skilled and effective listener and never need to ask, “Do you think I talk just to hear myself speak?”

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Glen Carritt is organizing a United We Roll Canada convoy that will travel to British Columbia in June. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Former Innisfail town councillor breached code of conduct many times, says review

Consultants say 29 of 36 alleged breaches by Glen Carritt had merit

Members of the Red Deer RCMP downtown patrol monitor for drug activity and property crimes. (Advocate file photo).
Two peace officers are training to join Red Deer’s downtown police patrol unit

This “integrated” unit will be the first in Alberta

Students and staff at Gateway Christian School wore pink Wednesday in support of Pink Shirt Day, a worldwide anti-bullying initiative that was started in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Public Schools)
Students, central Alberta community celebrate Pink Shirt Day

Mayor of Sylvan Lake Sean McIntyre supports anti-bullying cause

City of Red Deer has nearly doubled its active COVID-19 case count since Feb. 10 and has 75.6 per cent of the Central zone’s active cases. (File photo)
Another new high: Red Deer hits 574 active COVID-19 cases

Province reports 13 new COVID-19 deaths, 430 new cases

A homeless shelter was promised Red Deer to help the city deal with downtown issues. The city and province finally released a signed agreement on what the facility will offer, a year after a $7 million commitment was made for the project by the province. (Advocate file photo).
City and province take next step in bringing a 24/7 shelter to Red Deer

It will include a detox and counselling services

Meteor spotted over Edmonton, Alta., on Feb. 22, 2021 by several, who took to social media to share their surveillance camera captures. (@KixxAxe/Twitter)
VIDEO: Fireball meteor streaks across sky, spotted by early-morning risers in Alberta, B.C.

Videos of the quick streak of light flashing across the sky before 6:30 a.m. MST

European Union Ambassador to Venezuela Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa meets with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza at his office in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The meeting was called after the EU sanctioned an additional 19 Venezuelans for "undermining democracy and the rule of law" in Venezuela and the National Assembly declared the EU ambassador "persona non grata." (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Sanctions prompt Venezuela to expel head of EU delegation

Sanctions prompt Venezuela to expel head of EU delegation

Capitol Police Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman departs a ceremony memorializing U.S. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, as an urn with his cremated remains lies in honor on a black-draped table at the center of the Capitol Rotunda, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, in Washington. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
Chief: Capitol Police were warned of violence before riot

Chief: Capitol Police were warned of violence before riot

Relatives of inmates cry outside the Centro de Privación de Libertad Zona 8 prison where riots broke out in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Deadly riots broke out in prisons in three cities across the country due to fights between rival gangs, according to police. (AP Photo/Angel Dejesus)
Gang clashes result in Ecuador’s deadliest prison riots ever

Gang clashes result in Ecuador’s deadliest prison riots ever

El Chapo’s wife goes from obscurity to celebrity to arrest

El Chapo’s wife goes from obscurity to celebrity to arrest

This combination photo shows notable cast members from the musical "Rent," from left, Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Daphne Rubin-Vega. The New York Theater Workshop will celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Rent” with a gala on March 2 that will be available to stream through March 6. (AP Photo)
La Vie Boheme: ‘Rent’ musical celebrates 25th anniversary

La Vie Boheme: ‘Rent’ musical celebrates 25th anniversary

This cover image released by Knopf shows "Speak, Okinawa," a memoir by Elizabeth Miki Brina. (Knopf via AP)
Review: ‘Speak, Okinawa’ is a masterful memoir and more

Review: ‘Speak, Okinawa’ is a masterful memoir and more

FILE - Yara Shahidi arrives at the 51st NAACP Image Awards in Pasadena, Calif., on Feb. 22, 2020. Shahidi not only stars in the young adult dramedy “grown-ish,” but she also serves as an executive producer. The 21-year-old, who swaps out reading scripts for text books as a Harvard student, says she’s equally invested in what happens behind the camera. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
Yara Shahidi doesn’t use her voice just to hear herself talk

Yara Shahidi doesn’t use her voice just to hear herself talk

This image released by CBS News shows the logo for the new "60 Minutes Plus" program. CBS News says it is launching a streaming version of "60 Minutes" on the new Paramount Plus service, starting next week, hoping to expose the durable brand to a younger and more diverse audience. (CBS News via AP)
‘60 Minutes’ will have streaming spinoff on Paramount+

‘60 Minutes’ will have streaming spinoff on Paramount+

Most Read