“The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” Alfred Brendell
We are a nation of poor listeners. Most of us only partially listen when others are expressing themselves. Our minds wander onto our preoccupations. We feign interest. We wish the person would get to the point. Mostly, we just mechanically hear people.
Hearing is the automatic process of taking in sound waves through the outer ear, converting those waves into electrical impulses and then transmitting them into the brain. Assuming your ears are functioning well, the moment those signals reach the brain is when listening starts.
Unfortunately, at this point, our mental structures step in and filter what the brain is receiving. Our filters block specific information and allow in other data. They focus our attention on certain aspects of the material, place a perception onto it, and then categorise the facts received. Some information will be classified as new and unfamiliar. Other data will be catalogued as familiar and as something we are knowledgeable about or have encountered before. This categorisation may be correct or incorrect, but we believe it. We naively fall into the trap of thinking we know what we hear because we have heard it before. Moreover, any cultural or ethnic biases step in here, urging us to listen fully to certain people and mostly ignore others.
Given the brain’s habit of filtering what we hear, how can we listen fully to others rather than just mechanically hear them?
Here are some suggestions:
– Remove distractions. All visual and auditory distractions in your vicinity, primarily mobile phones or switched on laptops, will reduce your capacity to listen intently to others. Just being aware of a phone’s presence near you is proven to lessen your attention on another.
– Eliminate your negative emotions. Any conflicting feeling you bring to the communication will hinder your ability to take heed of what someone else is saying. Be able to enter a conversation centred and focused on understanding the other free from your interpretations. Hear the words they speak, the emotions behind their words and, if possible, the spaces between their words.
– Be aware of your mental filters. We have a whole host of psychological biases that can creep into our mind while listening to others. They invariably include our desire to plan what our reply while another is speaking; our need to be right and make the other wrong; our wish to finish their sentences for them; and our willingness to solve their problems and feel ‘better than’ them. Watch our for those desires at play when you are listening.
– Slow down. Be willing to take the time to pay full attention to another. People can tell if you are in a hurry. You are only 50% with them, and they feel your need to move on. This, in turn, does not encourage them to express all that needs to be said.
– Accept you do not know what people need when they are sharing or experiencing something difficult. Be willing to ask “How can I best support you at this moment?” These words signal that you have fully absorbed what they have said and are on their side. Alternatively, question “What do you need….specifically?” They may not know, so then you could make suggestions such as an ongoing listening ear? A cup of tea? A hug? Some feedback or suggestions?
It is so tempting to step in and offer a solution immediately when people are struggling, but, mostly, that is precisely what they do not want or need. Keep your mouth zipped up and be a warm listening space.
To conclude, fully listening goes beyond just hearing. It is listening so intently that others feel understood and nurtured by your attention. It is taking in their words so accurately that you can reflect back to them exactly what they have said and all that they have meant. If we make this our ongoing intention, it may go some small way to helping heal our current epidemic of mental ill health and allow people to move beyond the inner demons that are holding them back.