I don’t remember when I first heard the phrase “active listening.” It was probably in a college classroom, during a lecture on behavior management or providing constructive feedback during a speech therapy session. I studied speech therapy. As developing clinicians, it was important to be able to hear and process what we were hearing in order to help clients develop into stronger communicators.
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.Epictatus
You may have seen or heard this quote before, but have you really thought about the act of listening? True listening requires us to be present and attuned to our communication partner. When we are actively listening, we are not trying to finish the story being told to us. Instead, we are focused on the reality of the storyteller – their feelings, reactions and intentions. We are able to reflect back to them our own insights, or ask probing questions to gain a clearer understanding.
At least, that is what we should be doing.
I am the first to admit, active listening takes extra effort for me when most of my communication these days takes place over a phone or virtual connection. I find myself easily distracted, even when the topic is one I find fascinating. I know I am not the only one who gets antsy and restless as the Zoom meetings increase in number. Of course the speakers on these calls deserve my attention and active listening. Yet, I struggle to wait for my communication partners to finish their thoughts before chiming in.
One of the ways I remain an engaged listener is to give my hands something to do. When we used to gather in-person for conferences or meetings, I would silently crochet. Last week, I volunteered to take the minutes for a meeting so I would be forced to pay close attention to what was being discussed. Earlier this month I served as a host for a large Zoom event. This ensured I would remain focused and engaged for the entire multi-day training seminar, rather than playing solitaire or Candy Crush.
Being an active listener shows our communication partners we are respectful of what they are saying. Given the state of our political climate, it is crucial for everyone to listen to people we may not agree with. That doesn’t mean we need to give hate speech a platform. I’m not endorsing that at all. But if we don’t listen, truly listen, to people who don’t think or speak like we do, we make it impossible to find common ground.
These days, it is easy to walk away or tune out those who do not share our outlook or viewpoint. I can unfollow a friend or family member on social media if I find their posts offensive or opposite to my point of view. I can, and have, removed myself from an online group when what started as a community of peers turned into a negative space which did not bring positivity to my life. I have the privilege of removing myself from conversations I find degrading. But should I always disengage?
Last week I heard an interview with two men who were talking about gun violence. One man was a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. The other man was speaking out in favor of legislation which would ban semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines from civilian sale or use. I was tempted to turn off the radio. Then each of them said something which made me think differently about the topic. I didn’t change my mind, but I gained an insight into their own opinions and the rationale for their beliefs. I developed a deeper understanding about a topic I often don’t think about in more than a cursory manner. I am not ready to take a stand with either of them. However, I have a clearer picture of how someone I traditionally write off as opposite of me arrived at their conclusion. I respect the men for their willingness to take a stand and explain the reasons for their stances.
Respect. At the end of the day, it is what we hope to gain from others. I don’t need agreement from everyone who reads this post or hears me speak. You grant me respect by taking a few minutes of your day to read and comment. It may not be the same as actively listening with your 2 ears, but you have 2 eyes, too.
I challenge you to take time to actively listen this week to someone with whom you do not agree. Ask a question if you can, and try to engage in a respectful dialogue if you feel comfortable. Maybe when we get to know more about the people we typically avoid, we can help start to find common respect with others and build stronger communities.