How do you rate yourself as a listener? Is it important? Is your listening muscle atrophied because you’ve never exercised it? Have you ever even thought about the importance of listening before? Is it a learned skill?
About fifteen years ago, I realized a key to relationships—listening. Whenever I was with friends, we would exchange the normal niceties, and I began experimenting. I hesitated after asking them how they were and heard their rote response of “Fine.” What I found out: if given time, space and interest, they shared extensively about what was important to them. I felt like I had uncovered an important fact: people like to talk about themselves, and it’s better to listen than list your life’s joys and woes. I experimented with this concept for several years, and it worked. I knew more about key areas of interests of my friends, and I felt closer to them. They appreciated my interest in them and their lives. I saw a depth in relationships I had never seen before this practice.
After I had this realization, I did a major career change: I moved out of the middle school classroom and became an Instructional Coach. Now my focus would be to support teachers in their classrooms. It felt big and overwhelming, but my interest in listening prepared me for this support role.
At the first gathering of new Instructional Coaches, I made the conscious choice to hang back and listen—not fill the air with my talking. Again, this focus on listening paid off—I watched the dynamics of the group, and immediately I saw I needed to listen to the experienced Coaches and learn from them.
I received amazing training as an Instructional Coach called “Cognitive Coaching” which focused a large part on open listening to someone. I learned the importance of my stance, posture, position of my arms and eye contact and how these affected how people communicated with me—basically active listening.
In our training, we had ample practice time, and repeatedly, I saw these techniques pay off in the exchange with someone. It confirmed what I had been experimenting with for years—the importance of listening, but I added to my repertoire tools that have assisted me over and over again.
This focus on listening was different posturing for me—my dad identified me as his “Talking Daughter.” I had talked my way through most of my life. His favorite story about me talking happened on our family trip to California when I was ten. This was in the early 60’s—pre-air conditioning in cars. We arrived in Phoenix, Arizona in June in the extreme heat and wondered how we would make it through the desert ahead of us in this horrible heat.
Dad decided to wake us up early the next day and go through the desert in the cool of the night–yeah, right—driving through Gila Bend in June. My mom, brother and sister quickly fell back asleep, but I was wide-eyed and excited about California looming in the distance. I sat between Mom and Dad up front, straining to see the desert as it passed by. Dad said I talked non-stop, and I can still remember seeing the desert etched in the darkness and then the early morning light. I had never seen saguaro cactus before and their silhouettes stood ominous in the dawn. He often said my talking kept him awake and alert, so it was a Godsend.
That became a favorite memory of Dad’s, and I loved his retelling of it and his nickname for me, so I continued most of my life talking your leg off!
As I matured and realized the power of listening, I consciously gave up the “Talking Daughter” stance and moved to become an active listener.
Another place I’ve learned about listening is in twelve step meetings. For an hour, we listen to other’s share their life stories. If we get the opportunity to talk, it’s usually between two – five minutes, so the majority of my responsibilities at a meeting lay in my ability to listen and take in what someone else is sharing and feeling and relate to their pain and growth.
Often, I’ve heard, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk.” As a result of these meetings, I’ve realized the importance of listening and paying attention to what people say.
Today we are bombarded with information overload and outrageous visual stimulus. Often, I see a family sitting around a table in a restaurant with eyes glued to the screen of whatever electronic gadget they have. Not only are they not talking—no one is listening!
As I look back over my life, I realize I received listening training early, but never thought about it before. Often our after-dinner activity centered on storytelling. With a cigarette and a cup of coffee in hand, Dad entertained us with stories of his childhood, driving a herd of horses to Cimarron, New Mexico with Mose Russell and other delightful tales that mesmerized me. My only job then: sit in awe and listen to his stories and soak up a history that I love to recount today.
So, what do you think? Is listening an important skill? What are your listening skills like? Do you ever think about the power of listening? Or are you rehearsing your response to someone in your mind and lending half an ear to what people are saying? Let’s talk about listening!
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