I recently watched the movie “Hector and the Search for Happiness” again, and while I have spoken on happiness in the past, and will do so again, today I’m going to concentrate on one phrase that stood out for me… listening is loving.
While writing is mostly a monologue, our lives and our minds tend to function best in dialogue. So what does this three-word phrase mean to the work of change, and to our relationships with others and ourselves? Lend an ear (or in this case, eyes) and we’ll explore…
Which way is the wind blowing?
I’ve watched debates and roundtables on television and have noticed that there is a lot of parallel speaking. Each orator is talking on their own track and may only acknowledge another utterance to say “No” and then continue on the same path as before. Which tends to move the participants farther away from each other in the end – each planting their standard on their own hill, with only the wind of the ‘opposition’ blowing each flag a little, with words whooshing past, unheard.
If we use the metaphor of wind out as talking, and wind in as listening, do you feel the gentle puff in your face when you converse? Or are you gusting to others?
When we read non-fiction books, we often read them to draw out information and insight, or to give us a boost so that we can put into action the suggestions from the words within. However, when we get to conversations, we often forget that we can be doing the same thing. But what if you are conversing with a ‘novel’ rather than facts?
Recall the last good novel you followed – where there was both dialogue to move the characters forward, as well as descriptive text that gave a deeper and greater understanding of the personalities on the pages. When we listen to something as ‘simple’ as how someone else’s day is going, we have an even greater challenge to not only hear the words, but to gather and confirm the additional context we can’t ‘read’ without a narrator.
There is the adage that generally we were given two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we speak… what is your ratio right now?
How Easy IS Listening for us?
Some people find listening much easier than others. I like to think that I’m a pretty fast thinker and I used to find myself finishing people’s… sentences. I thought I was moving the conversation along, but really I was terminating their part of the talking so I could move the words back to MY mouth. On occasion (hopefully rare) I still get ahead of myself when there’s something I want to blurt out and I hijack someone else’s talk time.
Whether currently or in the past, we may have vied for talk time – lots of kids at home or school. Or speaking was praised for or represented being confident or creative. Or, as we know, a repeated pattern also tends to simply become a habit. Maybe it could be seen as a familial trait – whatever the reason it probably had a purpose when it started.
Susan Cain talks about talking and listening along the extroversion-introversion spectrum in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. While most of us fall somewhere along the continuum rather than at the ends, an extrovert may tend to talk more than listen with a lot of words available to them, while an introvert may listen more than talk, reflecting on the words before they respond. Each type of ‘vert’ can converse, it just may be the arena – public or one-to-one – where they feel more energized. If you suspect you have introverted tendencies, I recommend this book (the librarian who helped me check out the book again told me it changed her life as an introvert!), and if you feel you’re more extroverted, you might get some valuable information and tips on how to better listen to all kinds of people in your work and life.
We can also be challenged through our biases, our beliefs and our own internal conversations. When someone doesn’t make sense, it may be the different perspective that changes the words into a more foreign tongue for us. Sometimes our own thoughts or assumptions alter someone else’s story so that we simply hear a different version. Just like two opposing views both finding research studies that ‘prove’ that their side is right, it is easier to be drawn to information and conversations that confirm our worldview. It takes a mature individual to listen to disparate information and stay open to process them all.
Even if the other person isn’t actually making complete sense – be it when they are flooded with emotions, or as an outcome of a stroke – there are ways to improve your ability to connect with others, even if their different views are dramatically different from yours.
The popular modes of media can also affect our abilities and patterns. Jack Schafer, in his book “The Like Switch” gave an example of students who had difficulties having a conversation face to face, but back to back, in phone-based text/sms, they communicated quite freely. While the latter requires better grasp of the written word, there are lots of non-verbal extras that we can ‘listen to’ during in person conversations.
The Practice of Listening
So if you have a feeling that you might not be the best listener, then you’re not alone. There are times when, and valid reasons why, we don’t listen as well as the situation may ask for. But just like riding a bicycle, listening can get better with training. As someone who tends to talk a lot, but also listens deeply to clients and students (on all levels of the mind) there are a few tips that may help you develop skills that can benefit you and others in your life.
The first suggestion that seems to improve any listening practice is to actually take time to practice! And time is an important factor. Focus on words, take time to understand context, and give yourself space to understand.
The best metaphor I can find for listening is slowing down to enjoy a delicious meal – you open your senses and savour what’s coming to you – allowing you to chew on others words and really digest what they are speaking about. If you need clarification, it’s fine to ask for more information, rather than changing the subject. An attitude of openness and curiosity will tend to help when perspectives of speaker and listener don’t match.
Once you start listening to others, you’ll notice a lot of subtleties that can help in decoding others words. Sometimes it has nothing to do with mouth sounds, but with accompanying non-verbal cues as well as volume and tone of voice. This is why novels are annotated with “(quote), he shouted” or “As she slowly uncrossed her folded arms, she replied…” because changes in body position and sound can indicate much more than the words themselves. While there are lots of books about this, it is a fun trial and error exercise you can add to your listening – you’ll be amazed how even micro expressions can be incredibly valuable in our interactions.
People tend to tell stories, so I often discover a lot about people by the metaphors they use, often without even knowing they are using them. When you start listening more closely, you’ll begin to discover some themes that may help you to both piece together the deeper tale the person is sharing with you, and ways to connect with them by using aspects of their own metaphors to show you are understanding them. This isn’t parroting back to them, but repackaging the story in a way that resonates with the other person. And if you’re interested in learning more on how to develop skills in ‘metaphorical conversations’, please email me here as I’ll be starting a webinar series in the new year.
Another simple way to uncover possibly significant aspects of the conversation is to listen for repeated words. The subconscious loves repetition, loves repetition, and our compounding of certain words or phrases often belies our need to underline something within our verbal text. Once you start listening more, you’ll be noticing other valuable hints given by the speaker to make you an even better listener.
What it means to hear… and listen
One of the reasons people enjoy therapy is that they often feel very ‘heard’. As professionals, we tend to use our skills of experience in listening to understand what our clients really want and need.
Unfortunately, it seems that there is a shortage of listening and a lot of talking, a certain ‘enough about me, how do you feel about me’ that monologues and stops us from having a real give and take with others. When we listen in our daily life, people tend to respond positively.
It may be the scarcity of this skill that will make you stand out from others. It may be that it encourages communication and connection with others. It may be that it implies a certain amount of respect for another person – being dismissed or overlooked is often interpreted as an insult.
When we actually listen to people, we find out more about them. We can ask relevant questions to gain even more insight into them and their lives. We tend to make them feel good about themselves, because they are worth listening to. And as a result, they like us better! Jack Schafer’s book mentions that listening and having people feel good about themselves due to us and our actions increases our likeability.
When we start really listening, we can also discover more about the way a person works – what makes them tick – and that absorbing openness can provide us with a translator to another person’s deeper language. And by learning more deeply, we are provided with more tools to gain understanding and empathy for others. And that, is not only a therapist’s treasure but one that we could all use a bit more in the world.
Listen to Your Body Scream
My husband often reminds me to listen to my body… not just when it’s screaming at me. I’ve heard of a lot of people who ‘work through’ the pain and end up in an even more difficult situation. When our body desperately speaks to us – when we’re overtired, hurt or ill – we need to be as respectful to ourselves as we are in a conversation with someone else. Listening means giving ourselves enough rest, or time to recover and fortify – self-care which is anything but selfish.
There are other times when our body speaks to us in a sort of code. When a part of our physical self is hurting, it may be an emotional or mental strain that is simply exhibiting itself in our corporal form. I’ve seen chronic discomfort and anomalies fade or vanish when the underlying message if discovered and unraveled.
Our powerful emotions within the subconscious mind are often speaking to us, and are often left unheard. Our feelings are attached to needs that we have, signs that need to be followed – they are trying to tell us something important, and a lot of us don’t give any time to hearing them.
The words we say to ourselves can be tools that help or hurt us. Many times they heckle or stalk us without our being aware of them. I often hear people talk about themselves in ways that would have them lose all their friends if they spoke about others the way they were speaking about themselves. Very, very harsh.
One of the great strengths of hypnosis is that it allows us to listen much more carefully and lovingly to our inside ‘voices’ to gain insight and information on a physical, emotional and mental level. All of the skills that we can turn on others, we can also wield on ourselves to support ourselves and learn more about our past weaknesses that can be redirected as strengths. To listen, especially to ourselves, we need space and quiet, so that we can sit with possibly our most difficult conversations with love and compassion. I like the words of Maya Angelou in her short story “Even the Stars Look Lonesome Sometimes” and their relevance to listening to our deepest and greatest selves:
“We need to remember and to teach our children that solitude can be a much-to-be-desired condition. Not only is it acceptable to be alone, at times it is positively to be wished for.
It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves. In the silence we listen to ourselves. Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves to ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God.”
If you want to have a conversation, please let me know – I’m here to listen. Jennifer