We all know many of the other sayings and clichés surrounding good listening, such as having two ears and one mouth and using them roughly in that same proportion, that is, listening twice as often as we talk.
Most of us mean to be good listeners. We even fancy ourselves to be good listeners. I would even venture to guess that most of us applaud ourselves for being good listeners, while at the same time resenting and noticing all of those people in our lives who are not paying close enough attention to or listening well enough to us!
Why is listening so important? Good listening is foundational to good communication, and good communication is critical to any healthy relationship. This applies to co-workers, bosses, subordinates, spouses, kids, siblings—pretty much anybody we have a relationship with.
I’ll never forget when my own daughter, during one of our conversations, complained that I wasn’t listening. Sure, I was “hearing” and responding, but in truth, I wasn’t really listening. I knew immediately that she was right.
“The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent.’”—Alfred Brendel.
At its core is that deep, innate human desire to simply be listened to, to really be understood. And in this case, my daughter wasn’t getting that. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve probably all been on both sides of that conversation at least a time or two.
Fortunately, listening is a skill that can be learned and improved upon; regardless of how good (or bad) we might currently be at it. Common advice includes not interrupting and asking good questions. When appropriate, paraphrase the speaker’s words back to them so you both know you truly understand what they are saying. Positive body language such as comfortable eye contact is also important. It goes without saying that nobody wants to open up to somebody who comes across as close-minded and judgmental.
My personal favorite, and one that underpins so much of good listening, is simply being fully “present” to the person you are talking to. As author M. Scott Peck put it, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” Even our own thoughts get in the way, such as being too preoccupied with how we will respond during the conversation. A big distraction for most people is all of the technological devices we carry around. As much as possible, put them away and do not reach for them.
Needless to say, we know and see the importance of listening in our work with seniors and their families. It’s the basis for our being able to offer help and advice. Good listening skills will undoubtedly improve your ability to communicate and should enhance your relationships as well. It’s something that loved ones, friends, and colleagues will all appreciate and, quite frankly, deserve.
The rewards of good listening can be transforming. As Doug Larson put it, “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.”