Do We Really Listen? Huh?

Mister D: This is one of those articles that takes something Bette-related to teach a lesson. Oh I love these articles so, I do. You all know my penchant for education and what better way to teach than through the Divine Miss M.

Montreal Gazette
Listen to others when they speak -but also to your own voice

Years ago, in journalism school, an interview I did with an acquaintance who had been kind enough to come into the school television studio and answer some questions was played back to me as part of a class assignment -and I was appalled at how relentlessly I had interrupted him. Sometimes mid-sentence.

Worse, I had interrupted with questions that didn’t even follow the thread of what he was saying: I was so intent on my own agenda, on the list of questions I had prepared, that I wasn’t listening more than superficially to what the guy was saying.

I’d like to believe I’m better these days at letting people complete their thoughts – whether I’m interviewing them or we’re just talking. I like to think I have become a better listener. But I’m not entirely sure that’s true. And I wonder if most of us don’t think we’re better listeners than we actually are.

So many conversations remind me of tennis matches: one person saying something and the other chiming in with what he has been wanting to say all along: it’s as if he has just been waiting for the other person to leave a gap large enough between sentences to jump in. When what you’re listening for is for someone to draw breath, you’re not listening to what he’s saying.

Richard Carlson grew up believing he was a good listener. And even though he thinks he’s a better one today, because he is more aware of the art of slowing down enough to really pay attention to what is being said, he still considers himself only an adequate listener, he observed in his terrific book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … And It’s All Small Stuff (Hyperion, 1997).

Really listening is about more than simply avoiding the all-too-common habits of interrupting someone who is speaking or finishing that person’s sentence for him or hijacking the conversation entirely. Remember Bette Midler‘s character in the 1988 film Beaches? “But enough about me, let’s talk about you … what do you think about me?” And few of us really listen.

Non-sequiturs are a clear sign someone’s not listening: you’re talking health worries or job troubles -and the person with whom you’re speaking comes back with a remark or a thought entirely unrelated to what you’ve been saying. I always feel diminished when that happens -as if what I have to say isn’t worth hearing.

In some ways, the way we fail to listen is a metaphor for the way we live: we treat communication like some sort of competition, Carlson says -with the goal to have as little time as possible elapse between when one of us stops talking and the other starts.

Next time you’re in a coffee shop or a restaurant, eavesdrop for a bit on the conversations around you. It’s easiest if you focus on the tables of two: listen in and decide for yourself how many people are talking at each other. Listen how often there is an obvious disconnect between what the two are saying. They’re not taking turns listening to each other: they’re taking turns not listening to each other.

Of course, some people don’t even listen to what they themselves say to other people: otherwise we wouldn’t be subjected to the same stories told to us by them two and three times over. Memory and concentration have something to do with it, sure -but I believe people are far less attentive or thoughtful than they ought to be about their interactions with others.

I think real listening is about being willing to allow a person time and space to express the thought or thoughts that person wants to express, even if it takes a while. It’s about listening, mindfully, to what they’re saying.

Slowing down and really listening will make speaker and listener feel more relaxed. “They will feel safe in slowing down their own responses because they won’t feel in competition with you for ‘airtime,’ ” Carlson writes. And he says slowing down can help us to become more peaceful, less pressured, less stressed.

But before we can be any good at listening to others, we need to be adept at listening to our own voices -and I’m not sure most of us listen all that closely to our own selves, to what our bodies and our minds try to tell us: if we did, I’m not convinced we’d force our exhausted selves to stay up so late or that we’d make as many ill-advised decisions, as many regrettable choices, as we do.

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