We live in a world filled with noise. Everywhere we go we are bombarded by the constant steady stream of noise that never really seems to shut itself off. So much so that many people feel the need to take retreats to get away from it all.
Each time I’ve done this the first thing I notice, always, is how quiet it is. When I finally force myself to turn off my devices, to disconnect, and to be fully present in my surroundings, the first thing I experience is a quiet that has become all too foreign in our lives. The quiet that allows you to hear your own thoughts, that allows you to really see what’s going on around you, and that allows you to direct your musings and contemplations.
This is unfortunately an uncomfortable exercise for many of us. We have grown so accustomed to the constant pace and buzz of our world, to the little gadget in our pockets that keeps us constantly connected, and to the distractions, direction, and influence that our strongly connected world has on us that quiet contemplation about topics of our own choosing is foreign at best and can be uncomfortable and down right scary.
We are so uncomfortable with this quiet that we in fact default to generating our own noise to combat this. We post, tweet, text, and perform a myriad other noise-generating activities to help fill the silence. We identify the like-worthy and retweetable sound bytes of our lives and spew them out. We comment on others’ sound bytes and create a world filled with much conversation but little communication.
There are many unfortunate realities of this situation, but the one I want to focus on today is this: with all the talking we’re doing to fill our own silences, we’re unable to truly listen to others.
We listen in order to speak
Maybe you can relate to this: you’re in a group conversation with two or more people, and one person is speaking. And honestly, they’re speaking a little more than you’d like, and you feel that they’re somewhat long winded. You know that they’ll eventually take a breath, and you need to make sure you capitalize on that, so you’re running through what you want to say, making sure you’ve got the right counterpoints to what they’re proposing.
You’re listening, but are you internalizing what they’re saying? Are you giving what they’re saying its due regard? Or are you trying to formulate your response, your rebuttal, or your clever anecdote in retort?
Let’s face it, we’ve all done that. We’ve all laid out logically our counter argument, and have even had the pleasure of everyone else in the group nodding their heads as we counter the original argument point by point. Feels great right?
Sure. But in those conversations, while we may be speaking, and while we may even be speaking eloquently, we’re not communicating. And chances are, the person(s) we’re conversing with are doing the same, which means that none of us are really listening to one another.
While you may develop a reputation for being a wonderful orator, you won’t be receiving any accolades for being effective.
Are you actually interested?
Perhaps the first and foremost problem is that most of the time we’re not actually interested in the other person’s views or opinions.
Now don’t get me wrong - I’m not talking about the blatant, flagrant, and offensive “dude I don’t care about what you think” type of thing that usually comes along with a “and in fact I don’t really care about you” approach to the relationship. No, this is a much more refined, polite, and often unexpressed and only faintly detected lack of care and concern about what the other is saying despite genuinely having care for the relationship and for the other person.
If we’re truly honest with ourselves, we’ll discover that for most of us, we converse with others more because we want to be heard rather than because we want to hear.
The benefits of listening
There are a lot of really great reasons we ought to listen to others. And since we live in a capitalist, self-centered world, I’ll only focus on the benefits to ourselves that we get from truly listening to others.
- We become more empathetic. In a world full of strongly held opinions that are weakly founded and strongly adversarial, empathy is a quality that is increasingly rare but also increasingly coveted. When we truly are able to listen to others and care more about what they’re saying than what we want to say in return, we begin to tune into their needs, their wants, their desires; a process which makes us more empathetic.
- We move in to a posture of humility and learning. By listening to others and focusing our attention simply on what they’re saying, we more readily move ourselves into a position where we can learn something. This humility, this curiosity, this willingness to accept that we in fact don’t know it all is perhaps one of the most important realizations one can make in one’s lifetime,.
- We may learn something new. Remember that learning doesn’t always mean new knowledge. In fact, it’s probably arguable that the majority of learning we need has to do more with perspective and mindset than it does new information we were unaware of.
- We can build deeper connection. When we take the time to really listen to people, we may in fact discover that we have more in common than we might have originally thought. These commonalities light a path towards greater connection, greater understanding, and greater shared experience.
Practice paying attention
Attention is the beginning of connection and devotion. We can’t love something, be devoted to it, desire it, and move it forward if we can’t focus your attention on it. We can’t have a deep connection with something, be it a person, cause, idea, or effort if we are constantly distracted, constantly thinking about ourselves and our situation. As such we need to have mastery over our focus and our distractability - if we are too easily distracted, we will discover presently that the things we profess to love, we love in name only.
So how do we do this? How do we move our focus from self to other? How do we get better both at the desire to understand others as well as the practice of conversing in a way that allows for that understanding?
A great friend of mine has a wonderful technique that I’ve stolen and am starting to implement in my own life. It’s a simple phrase, and when asked with the right motivation yields great results.
That’s interesting… tell me more!
Simple right? Such a simple phrase, such a simple concept. Asking someone for more. But I assure you, it’s a magical concept. A few reasons:
- It shows a genuine interest in the other person(s). This simple phrase expresses to the other that you are interested in them, that you find something in them and in their story desirable, and who doesn’t want that? Who among us doesn’t take joy in the feeling of someone else desiring to know more about us?
- It allows others to shine. By expressing our desire for the other person to expand on their thoughts, we allow them to have their moment, to feel like they are expressing mastery over something. We are all built with an innate desire for mastery, for attaining mastery and for being recognized for it. What a great gift it is when someone allows us the opportunity to demonstrate that!
- It breaks barriers to connection. When we show interest in someone else, it allows them to let down their defenses and show interest in us, thereby creating a much deeper connection than we would have had otherwise! We walk around this earth constantly on the defensive. We are constantly bombarded with messages about how unsafe the world is, how much we need to protect ourselves. What a breath of fresh air it is to be able to break down those barriers by showing genuine interest in someone else! These broken down barriers eventually lead to a reciprocal interest, which as we know is the basis for connection!
And so my sons, my hope for you is that you too can incorporate this simple technique into your relationships, that you too can ask someone to tell you more about themselves, about their journey, and about their story. Ultimately life is about connection, about relationships, about fulfillment in the time, endeavors, and relations that we have, and above all things I want you both to have a rich and full life. I love you boys!