Most people don’t, won’t, or can’t listen. Especially in social situations. They are too busy thinking about what they will say when that other person stops talking. I used to be so afflicted. Through years of practice I have nearly overcome my non-listening ways.
I have learned to practice active listening when conversing with others. When it is my turn to talk, I show that I heard them by referring to what they have said. And since I want them to hear me as well, I try to be entertaining and succinct. A good conversation is like a game of volley ball: you can hit the ball once, twice, up to three times on your side, but then you have to hit it back. Every game has rules and some are unspoken.
So I practice listening. And when I read why listening is important, I am motivated to do more of it, better. Here is an excerpt on the subject:
Strength to Your Sword Arm: Selected Writings
by Brenda Ueland
…I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all — which is so important too — to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.
Think how the friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like ultraviolet rays. This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weakens up and dies.
Well, that is the principle of it. It makes people happy and free when they are listened to. And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good. Who are the people, for example, to whom you go for advice? Not to the hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people that you know. It is because by pouring out your problem to them, you then know what to do about it yourself…
Ms. Ueland’s article continues for several insightful pages. I found it powerful and motivating. Perhaps you will as well. You’ll find the entire PDF file here: Tell Me More
As I become more mindful of what it takes to listen to others, I see how hard it is for any of us to do it. You may find amusing a couple of experiences I have had in this arena.
A few years ago, Rosemary and I met a couple for dinner. It was a getting to know you session and I said to Rosemary as we drove to the restaurant, “Let’s play a game with our new friends. We won’t tell anything about ourselves unless they ask us a direct question. And, if they do ask, we’ll answer in two or three sentences and then ask another question about them.”
“Sounds like fun,” she said.
“It’s fun to see who passes the five minute test,” I said.
“What’s that?” Rosemary asked.
“When you meet someone new,” I explained, “If they haven’t asked about you within five minutes, they failed the test.”
“Well, that’s not very nice,” she said, “To subject people to a test they don’t know about.”
“It hardly works if you tell them,” I said, “Besides we’re so fascinating I’m sure they’ll want to know all about us.”
You may not believe this, but we spent two hours at dinner with this very nice couple and we never once said a thing about ourselves: our home, jobs, hobbies, travels… we never even mentioned our high achieving children. Though we heard all about theirs. We heard everything about them in great detail. But because we waited to be asked about ourselves, to have the ball hit to our side of the net, we never got to play. And these people were high level types. He was a top sales rep for a Fortune 50 company; she ran her own home based business.
Rosemary was astounded. It was her first experience with mindful social conversation. She told me it required all her effort to not tell about her own terrific children in response to hearing about theirs. We were not asked, we did not tell.
We weren’t ignored. We never got the chance to be ignored.
I don’t like to be ignored. Who does? So I have built conversational defense mechanisms to help avoid it. If I meet someone who needs to talk more than listen, I am happy to be their listener. (Not that happy, perhaps, but better than being ignored). Especially as others have been a listener for me when that’s what I needed most. Although I prefer a back and forth according to the rules, I can talk or listen as the situation reveals.
Sometimes I misread the social dynamic, and am punished for it.
An acquaintance of mine, let’s call him Gabby, was performing at a local venue recently. He is a fine musician. In the past we have consulted, formally, about how he might break through to the next level as an entertainer. At that consulting session I learned Gabby was not interested in listening to me, but rather, in me listening to him. So that’s what I did. After much listening on my part, Gabby asked me how much he owed me for the session. How could I take any money? I am not a licensed therapist. So I said a big piece of fruit pie would be sufficient. Besides, his wife was most charming and a great listener. Even better, she laughed at all my little gags.
Back to the venue. Armed with the knowledge that Gabby is listening challenged, I was prepared to be monosyllabic whenever I saw him socially. I was disarmed, however, when he asked about my recent cross-country trip.
Since I had done gigs around the country and sold out of all my books and CD’s, I thought Gabby might actually have an interest on how I did this. So I began to talk about it. In less than fifteen seconds (I am not exaggerating here) Gabby turned to the man on his left to comment on the new instrument he was holding. They began conversing about it, and drifted away from me.
I was annoyed with myself. I was tricked into talking to a non-listener, especially since I knew him to be a non-listener. The trick by the way is that he asked about me. Few of us are immune to that. Non-listeners never ask about you. If they do, it is to set themselves up to talk about themselves.
Most people, even non-listeners, have the social skills to gracefully exit a conversation, thus allowing you to save a little face. Gabby did not. I was caught open-mouthed and abandoned in mid-sentence. A most awkward position. And I amplified the situation by presuming Gabby would eventually drift back in my direction. Wrong again. So, I stood there far too long with fading smile, waiting for him to attend my fascinating story about which he had asked (and had heard but a few seconds of). But not to be. Gabby was off to another conversation, as I dangled in a social no man’s land.
Gracefully and unobtrusively–I hoped–I sidled off to another part of the room: embarrassed, annoyed, and more determined to not get caught flapping my jaw at Gabby again. Further, I did not listen to his concert. Like a spoiled boy with hurt feelings–quite true–I sat outside and played my guitar during his set.
Later that night, I was sitting with his charming wife, a great listener as I mentioned. Gabby joined us. Here I committed an obvious error of omission: I did not say, “Great set, Gabby!” Which is de rigueur at these events.
My omission, of course, was intentional. My feelings were hurt and I uncharitably wanted to hurt back. I suspect my gaffe did not go unnoticed. It is probable that on the way home Gabby said to his wife something like, “Gee, Steve seemed unhappy about something.” Whereupon his wife, no fool, and knowing her husband well, probably said, “Did you do something to annoy him?” This might have prompted Gabby to review the evening. No fool himself, he sent me the following note a week later:
Steve, I keep meaning to apologize to you for cutting you off in the middle of what promised to be a very interesting description of your amazing cross-country trip...I'm not quite sure how that happened but I am sure that it felt very odd to me at the time. At any rate, I really did want to hear about your trip and still do. Please accept my apology for something that must have involved me in the heat of the moment. You have always been nothing less than generous with your time & efforts on my behalf whenever I have had questions and problems. I hope I didn't offend you.
Of course, I felt small and petty upon receiving this note. I should have cut Gabby some slack, which I normally would do anyway. My motto: forgive, forget and move on. Especially since I have had much slack cut for me over the years. Seeing the high road is easier than taking it. Though I continue to try.
The moral I take from these little social dramas is that we are all wrapped up with our own thoughts. We have busy minds and lives. It is only with the greatest concentration that we can come up for air and pay attention to the busy minds and lives of others. Listeners who can perform that little trick are sent by God to serve those of us who need it most.
I hope to pass your five minute test should ever we meet.
Tell Me More: On the Fine Art of Listening by Brenda Ueland
How To Speak, How To Listen by Mortimer Adler
Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium. He is a concert guitarist and song writer with several CDs in release.