I have a question for you: on a scale of 1-10 how important do you think listening is in life?
I have asked that question to thousands of people — maybe tens of thousands of people — in my workshops. I have never gotten a response lower than a 9. Most people say a 10 or an 11. While that is not a scientific study, to me it’s pretty good data point that indicates that we tend to believe that listening is important.
Here’s another question for you: how many truly great listeners do you know personally?
If you are like the vast majority of the people that I’ve asked that question to in my workshops, you are struggling to come up with 1 or 2 people. It’s common that people will say none. And they say it with sadness. That to me presents a massive gap between a behavior and skill that most people rate as incredibly important AND that behavior and skill actually being implemented.
That’s sad to me. Most people are not born as good listeners. Listening is a skill and a behavior AND at the very heart of it, it is a choice. Think about it for a minute.
When we are in a conversation with someone, are we choosing to really be IN the conversation with them? Have we put down our phone, turned away from our computer, paused the tv or whatever other distraction that could be going on? If we haven’t, we might be in the same room, but that doesn’t mean that we are IN the conversation with them. That is a choice that we are making in the moment. And, whatever choice that you make is up to you, but recognize it for what it is: a choice.
Something to consider in this choice is this: the opposite of listening – truly listening – is ignoring. Is that how you want this person to feel? Ignored? If this person is at all important to you, then I’m guessing that that is NOT how you want them to feel. The problem is that we don’t think about it like that in those moments. Now we can.
Personally, I’ve been on both sides of this – as the listener, as the person being listened to and the person be faked listened to which means the person being ignored.
When I’m the listener, I give that person my attention. I want them to know that I hear them. To me that this another way of expressing that they matter.
I’ve been the person who was ignored. We’ve all been here. The person is pretending to listen but you can absolutely tell that they aren’t. I had a boyfriend once who excelled at this. He was so good at it, that, if you challenged him on it, he could even repeat back what you said in that moment. But, a tape recorder could do that. Repeating back the words, doesn’t mean that you understand the meaning and the context and the implications or the emotions and significance of the words.
And, I’ve been the person who has been listened to. This was one of the things that attracted me to Rick: he listens well and he listens to understand. In fact, one of the best lessons that I’ve ever learned about listening came from Rick.
It came about on a Thanksgiving with my family. When we lived in Chicago, we used to go to my Aunt Barb’s for Thanksgiving. The house was packed with people. One of my cousins was Jimmy. At the time, Jimmy was in his 40s, he’d been in the military for years and he was now in school because he wanted to become a teacher. Jimmy was always the quiet cousin. On this day, when we arrived and we walked into the kitchen, Jimmy was working on the turkey.
Rick said “Hey Jimmy, how’s it going?” And, in typical Jimmy fashion, he said, “Fine.”
Then something magical happened. Rick said, “I know you are in school, how’s that going?”
And Jimmy lit up and started talking about his experience and about how he was student teaching and how much he loved it. It was beautiful to see.
Then we sat down to dinner and Jimmy said, “That’s right Bobbi, you’re in grad school. How’s that going?”
Before I could answer, he said with a laugh, “I bet you make straight A’s. You make me sick!”
Before I could say anything, my sister said, “Yes, she does so I don’t even ask anymore.”
And, off the conversation went and I never got to say a single word about my experience, which I was actually dying to share. It hurt.
As we were driving home, I was telling Rick how cheated I felt! And that’s when he said something that was so wise. He said:
“We ask the questions not just to learn the answers. We ask the questions to show that we care.”
And, frankly, that was what was missing for me. Going to school was immensely important to me. I worked hard to put myself through school. And no one asked me about it. Not to learn what my favorite class was and why, who was my favorite professor and why, what was my best experience there, nothing. Now, maybe they did care – but I didn’t feel the care.
Ever since then, I’ve carried Rick’s bit of wisdom around with me: we ask the questions not just to learn the answers; we ask the questions to show that we care.
I use it to check myself: am I showing up in such a way that this person that I’m talking to will know that I care? Because especially if I love that person, I want them to KNOW that I care.
I’ll leave you this week with a challenge: when you are talking with people this coming week, put your awareness on this and ask yourself: am I showing this person that I care by the way that I’m showing up in this conversation?