“Put your cell phone down and back away!” You jump, startled, your mind torn from the text message on your phone. You glance up to see a uniformed policeman in full aggressive stance, displaying his badge with quiet authority. “police here,” you text. “whas up with that?’”
Sound familiar? What does it take to separate us from our electronic gadgets and focus on the real people around us? Let’s change the scenario: This time you put down the phone and back away. The policeman motions for you to go to the dining room. You see your nine-year-old son, Sam, seated at the table. Sam looks at you in anguish. “Can I talk to you, Mom? There’s this kid at school who’s been bullying me.” The policeman motions for you to sit down.
What if instead, your husband, Charlie, waited at the table? Charlie looks at you, chagrinned. “Sorry,” he mutters, nodding at the policeman. “It was the only way I could get you to listen to me. I’m afraid, darling. I’m afraid for our future. We never talk anymore.” You look at Charlie, a lock of hair falling over his forehead. He seems so vulnerable.
Modern day prophets call it the lost art of listening. We’re so tied to our cell phones, computers, tablets and electronic calendars, that most days we’re on automatic pilot. Do your days go by in a blur? Do you see the people around you? Do they see you? Or have you become isolated in a frantic world of incessant “to do” lists? When we do speak, is it basics and platitudes? “Sam, finish your homework before you play Mutant Ninja Zombies!” “Hi Charlie, how was your day at work?” you ask, and then move on before you hear his answer.
Taking people seriously is a key element to listening. It takes at least two people to share a feeling -- one to speak and one to listen. True listening involves focusing intently on the person speaking and thoughtfully hearing what they have to say. Be careful not to judge what they are saying, and don’t be so self-absorbed you’re already planning your story! Focus on the person speaking: their story and their experience. We’ve all had someone listen to us intently at one time or another. It was powerful, wasn’t it?
In Michael Nichols’ book, The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, the author explores the roots and questions surrounding the art of listening and proposes practical techniques to improve your listening skills.
Nichols says that we are all “yearning to be understood.” Although we often think we listen to others, our body language gives us away. “How was school today, Sam?” you may ask as he comes in the door. He looks at you expectantly. It’s been a rough day! But you have already turned your back to get something from the fridge. Yes, you asked how his day was. You just didn’t listen.
Recognition from another person makes our lives meaningful. True listening helps us to gain knowledge of the other person and to be available to them. A good way to identify the power of connection is to think back to our high school or college years. Most of us had a good friend back then that we could say anything to. They heard us; they listened, they got us! Remember how awesome that was?
Why do we need to return to our school days to remember that treasured feeling? Because when we were in school, we didn’t have adult responsibilities as we do now. Now our life is work, home, school, parenting, club attendance, bake sales . . . you name it – the roller coaster never stops. We need to find the off switch and slow down. People are in the other room, waiting to be heard. Later, we might even get our turn!