The one downside of this gift is that it’s not easy to give, but there’s an upside- and it’s big- giving this gift won’t cost you a dime, and it comes with a lifetime satisfaction guarantee.
People often ask; What can I do to help the world? One gentleman quipped, “Stay home! Keep out of traffic!” Given today’s commute, that’s a pretty good suggestion. Still, I’ll make a better one: try giving someone the priceless gift of being listened to.
On the surface, listening to someone sounds easy, but I can assure you it’s not. In fact, it’s quite difficult, which is why it so seldom happens and is also why it’s so profoundly appreciated when it does.
If you listen to someone, really listen, you’ll see something extraordinary happen because the human spirit needs more than what most of us are getting.
Each of us needs to be understood and listened to. Since it’s such a rare experience, it can transform our relationships and become one of life’s memorable moments.
So that raises a question … if listening is so critical, why is it so rarely practiced?
Because we take listening for granted. We confuse hearing with listening. We enter grade one with the basic ability to “speak” and “listen,” but we haven’t yet acquired any skills in reading or writing. Therefore, we assume that speaking and listening are natural skills.
The typical student graduates from school with an “acceptable” level of reading skills and an “unacceptable” level of listening skills. Students enter the workforce where their listening skills will be required about three times as much as their reading skills, which makes it easy to see why an effective listener has such a distinct advantage over a poor one.
The Power of Listening
It’s been said of former president Bill Clinton that when he was in conversation with you, it felt like he saw you as the only person in the world. His focus and attention on you were so complete.
Back in the mid-’70s, my high school was visited by Canada’s then-Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. I was chosen to ask the second question of a thirty-minute question-and-answer period.
Near the end of the session, while responding to a teacher’s question, Prime Minister Trudeau said, “What you’re asking is along the same lines as Richard’s question …”
What! I couldn’t believe it. Whatever I had asked him was already thirty minutes old! He was so focused and skilled at listening he not only remembered my name but the question I asked!
One of the great listeners of modern times was Sigmund Freud. A man who met Freud described his manner of listening: “It struck me so forcibly that I shall never forget him. He had qualities which I had never seen in any other man. Never had I seen such concentrated attention. His voice was low and kind. His gestures were few. But the attention he gave me, his appreciation of what I said, even when I said it badly, was extraordinary. You’ve no idea what it meant to be listened to like that.”
The fact that these influential people shared the ability to entirely focus on the speaker and the moment is hardly a coincidence.
When it Comes to Good Listening – This is KEY It Seldom Involves Giving
Most of us dread hearing it. I must confess I’m trying to cure my bad habit of listening to someone share a concern, and the moment they’re finished talking, I jump in with advice. That’s wrong! It’s terribly wrong because it’s based on the faulty assumption that the speaker is looking for guidance when they most likely want to be listened to.
In Dale Carnegie’s classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, he shares the story of a mother who made it her business to listen carefully when one of her children spoke to her. One evening, during a brief discussion with her son, who had something on his mind, he said: “Mom, I know that you love me very much.” Naturally, she was touched and said: “Of course, I love you very much. Did you doubt it?” Her son replied: “No, but I really know you love me because whenever I want to talk to you about something, you stop whatever you are doing and listen to me.”
The dramatic rise of polarization didn’t happen because of social media, the divisive views created by the COVID crisis, or even the growing political divide. It began within each of us. A little less patience. A little less courage. I say courage because when we listen to someone else intently, we may find our cherished beliefs challenged. Oh, that’s frightening!
We hear a lot about grand conspiracy theories, but the most obvious reason we can waive them aside is that pulling off a “grand” conspiracy would require a great deal of listening and cooperation. Not likely.
Indifference can only live within each of us, meaning only “you” can break it. The moment we begin to listen to one another, indifference and polarization cease to exist.
At some point in the next few weeks, look for an opportunity to give someone the simple – but not easy – gift of listening … not just hearing, but listening, really listening.
It may not improve the world, but it will enhance their world and maybe even yours, and that’s a pretty good start.