The Lost Art of Listening: Part 1 – Yearning to be Understood

In today’s fast paced world, most people aren’t willing to put in the time and energy necessary to really listen to others. Our attention spans have shrunk and priorities scattered in an attempt to multitask and keep up with our life (and others as well!) Miscommunication is a major source of conflict, and our everchanging technology has aggravated these feelings of emotional distress.

Most people are groomed to react with socially appropriate (and often generic) responses, resulting in the other person feeling misunderstood or neglected. In the book, The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, Michael Nichols delves into the human mind to explore the roots and questions surrounding the art of listening, as well as provide practical techniques to improve your listening skills.

We often take listening for granted, and not listening to others who feel ignored can have devastating consequences. People who are angry that they are not being heard could potentially act out in a violent and extreme manner in order to make their voice heard. The basis of listening is empathy, which is composed of part effort and part intuition. Without this connection, the speaker may feel hurt, alone, and defensive. Taking people seriously is a key element to listening. It takes at least two people to share a feeling – one to talk and one to listen.

But simply comforting someone isn’t the same as listening, the words need to be absorbed and voiced thoughtfully. The listener needs to sit with the other’s experience; a good listener is a witness, not a judge. Recognition (being listened to) is a response from another person that makes our life and experiences more meaningful. A simple misunderstanding can snowball into something more.

Example: After getting dressed for a party at a friend’s house, a woman asks her husband, “You’re wearing that coat to the party tonight?” The man believes his wife is giving him a hard time and was going to pressure him into wearing something else because she dislikes his style, since this was not the first time she had commented on his appearance. He typically rolled his eyes and ignored her comments, but now he was sick of it.

Response #1: “The mans snaps defensively, “Why do you care so much about what I wear? There’s nothing wrong with this coat!” His wife, then offended by his attitude reacts with hostility and they delve back into some of their unsolved arguments. Out come the attacks, “You always…you never…that is so typical of you…”

One way to have avoided this in the first place, would be for the woman to be more specific and phrase her words better. That way the man would not have mistaken her question as a personal attack on his appearance. On the other hand, the man could have also reacted in a more composed manner.

Response #2: “You don’t think I should wear this coat tonight.” The wife replies, “No, I think it might be too thin. I heard it’s going to be really cold, maybe you should wear a scarf or grab a thicker coat instead.”

It takes two to tango, if there are communication issues in the relationship, there’s a good chance that at least one person is not listening or being recognized. What we think and feel affect our behavior, which in turn affect how others feel and react, then back to how you feel and respond. This cycle is a process that we go through instinctually, that a lot of us don’t take the time to separate and examine parts of this process.

Communication breaks down when people don’t listen because their mind is preoccupied or they have some preconceived notion of what they think you’re gonna say. Providing feedback is a simple solution for situations like these, but other reasons for misunderstandings (transference, emotional reactivity, hidden agendas, and preconceived notions, etc) are trickier to fix.

There are some people who are just difficult to listen to, either because they talk incessantly or very little at all. But don’t simply dismiss them by tuning out talkative people or pressuring a quiet one to open up. There’s a reason for every behavior, so it’s better to feel out the situation and adjust accordingly.

Good communication (having the impact you meant to have from what you intended to say) is easier said than done and often results in mixed messages. Good timing is an easy way to avoid misunderstandings, because trying to have a meaningful conversation when one person is exhausted or stressed out will worsen the situation. As the writer George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

The Lost Art of Listening: Part 2 – The Real Reasons People Don’t Listen