I’m all ears.
My favorite moments with my son and daughter happen every other week when I drive to pick them up from their dad’s house. They climb into the car chattering over each other, one saying “MOM” louder than the other. They cannot wait to share their experiences from the weekend and I cannot wait to listen to them. My replies are short, one word oftentimes, “really,” “wow,” “yup,” “fun honey!” All I want to do in those moments is listen, remember their little voices, and excitement, and see how much it means to them that my ears and heart are open.
We all know that good communication in relationships is essential to the success of the relationship. I think we also know that listening is a huge part of communication. Listening, not hearing, there’s a big difference. You know what I’m talking about. You’re in a conversation and someone is chatting away, telling a story, barely taking a breath they are so excited to share, and you are hearing them … but, really you are thinking of all the things you need to do, or what you want to say next, or that you wish they would JUST STOP TALKING. You hear them, they know you hear them, and they also know you are not really listening. You are distracted and maybe they keep talking in the hopes that you will focus, just for a second, and really listen.
Listening is about so much more than hearing. We hear background noise all day, so much so that we tune a lot of it out. The humming of a dehumidifier, the neighbor’s dog barking, the kids bickering. The key to listening is attention. You may hear your children ramping up to a knock down drag out fight for a minute or more before you listen and know what’s really going on so you can put a stop to it. You must pull your attention to their words and focus on them. In other words, hearing is easy, it’s instinctual, you don’t have to think about it. Listening, on the other hand, requires you to pay attention, not an easy task in a world with a million distractions.
I myself am not always a great listener. I have a hundred distractions over the course of a day. Also, I love to talk and I wear my heart on my sleeve so there are times when my mouth is on overdrive. I put a lot of effort into balancing this however and I like to think part of really listening to people is sharing with them and relating to them. I have shared some very personal facts about myself with my patients so they know I am listening and empathizing. But truly I learn the most when I am simply present.
That is the key to listening, presence. When someone says to you, “you never listen,” they are really saying you are not present and I need your attention. My son, smart beyond his years even as a toddler, used to put his two chubby hands on the sides of my face when he was talking and say, “listen with your eyes.” People want to feel a connection, they want to feel their energy combined with yours, and when you are only hearing, there is no opportunity to connect. I hate to even imagine the opportunities I have missed connecting with people when I have merely heard and not listened.
So how do we amp up our listening skills so we can improve relationships, learn, and connect?
- Make eye contact. My toddler was right on with this one. Put down your phone, close your laptop, turn to face the person speaking to you, and look them in the eyes. Show them you are engaged.
- Ask more questions. Before you jump in to reply to give advice, “fix” something, or put in your two cents, clarify what the person talking to you really needs. Often it is simply validation.
- Pay attention to body language. Part of really listening to someone means noticing not just what they are saying but how they are saying it. Are they smiling? Are they having trouble making eye contact themselves? Do they look defeated, excited, scared? Noticing these subtleties may change the entire context of the conversation.
- Create space for listening. This is harder but absolutely necessary. Stop booking out every second of your day.
- Give yourself time during the day to reflect and have your own space so you can give the people in your life attention when they need it.
Most of all remember, never listen to reply, listen to understand. Human connection is unlike anything else we have in this life. Do your best to listen and never take that for granted. Your ears are the way to the heart.