My father used to always tell me that I did not listen! He was right! My attention was almost always somewhere else. But as I have matured I have learned the value of really listening! It is not always easy, but it is always worthwhile.
First, you have to still your own thoughts and focus on the other person or persons. I cannot be planning my answer and listening to the other’s thoughts at the same time. Usually my mind is so prepared to answer that I cannot hear. But when I push aside my own need to answer, I find that my ears and mind can pay more attention to what the other person is trying to say. I also find that I am more attentive to the contextual clues in their communication, body language and tone of voice. This has become especially important in my communication in Haiti because of the language barrier. When I am speaking with another through an interpreter, I find I must be attentive to both the speaker and the translator.
Second, I need to enter every conversation with the expectation that the other person has something to teach me. Whether it is a deep spiritual truth or just a detail of their life, they have something to give me if I will slow down long enough to receive it. This is where I think social media has spoiled us. We no longer spend time in conversation, we only throw words at each other. In one of the online classes I teach we experienced this text-based communication problem just this week. I said something to one student, but she heard something completely different. She then communicated what she thought I said to another student who went complaining to his advisor that I was giving them two different directions for the assignment! Because so many communication clues were missing a small misunderstanding became a big one very quickly. Real conversation takes time and effort. We must commit ourselves to the process and put aside distractions if we are to listen and learn.
And third, we need to weigh our words and temper our attitudes. Something else my dad taught me was to “count to ten” before responding in anger. Anger is not the only emotion that can hinder our listening. Communication requires us to trust one another with the ideas and thoughts we are sharing. If these ideas or worse our words are shared through our wounds, hurts, negative expectations, or anger, then communication ceases. If we allow words to trigger the worst of our emotions, then we stop communicating and end up only venting our emotions.
Dad, if you are paying attention to what I am doing now, I want you to see, I am learning to listen, so maybe I will listen and learn!