Recently I had surgery to remove a cataract from my right eye. Despite feeling some jitters ahead of time, everything went smoothly. My ophthalmologist and her staff had explained all the details, and I prepared for the procedure as instructed. Now while my eye heals, I am waiting to have the left eye done in a few weeks.
I’m fortunate in that I have not needed surgery for many years, and was struck by the developments in technology. When I walked into the OR, being in a Star Trek episode came to mind. The smooth and quick procedure reinforced that impression.
Several days later an acquaintance asked me how I was feeling. I opened my mouth to reply, and was startled by her saying, “You probably feel like…” and then went on at great length to tell me about her cataract surgery experience. Without missing a beat, she went on, not seeming to notice that I just nodded and smiled and had never responded to her question before she turned and addressed someone else.
I hadn’t really had a chance to respond. And more to the point, it seemed obvious to me that she wasn’t really interested.
This incident came to mind later when writing a report about building better relationships. Often when someone tells me that a relationship fell apart because they “can’t communicate,” that may cover a lot of different meanings.
But I suspect from working with couples, that most often it means that someone, and often no one, is really listening.
The power of effective listening cannot be overestimated.
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
— Henri J.M. NouwenThe Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey
Most of us have been guilty of poor listening at some point. You know what I mean; you may see the other person’s lips moving, but you are busy thinking about what you want to say when they stop. Or you’re thinking about what great points or interesting experiences you have been reminded of. Or you have a funny story to tell. Or you can’t wait to tell them how right you are about an argument you are making. Or you’re bored or preoccupied and your mind is wandering and you really don’t have the faintest idea what they are talking about.
Being on the receiving end of that inattention doesn’t feel good. Whether you intend it or not, what you are really communicating is that you don’t care about the other guy. You are saying that she/he is unimportant to you. It can be the death knell of a relationship because you have failed to make the connection.
To help you succeed with learning better listening skills and in the process, improve relationships, I would suggest a few simple steps:
- Maintain good eye contact with the speaker. You don’t have to stare, but look frequently and directly into their eyes.
- Take care to reflect the expression and body language of the speaker. Our body language needs to match up with the emotional tone of the conversation.
- After the person pauses, reflect back to them what you hear them saying. Ask a question to make sure that you are picking up both the meaning of their words as well as their emotional experience.
- Stay with them without changing the subject until they have finished talking.
- Avoid the temptation to give advice, fix things, come up with solutions, etc. This is not always easy, especially when you have been reared to be a problem solver or healer. It is not always easy to just “be” with someone who is in emotional pain. Remember this is not your problem to solve!
The greatest gift that we can offer anyone is to be fully present with them. And the way that we demonstrate that we are, is by careful listening. As Stephen Covey wrote, “When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it is like giving them emotional oxygen.”