Learning to Listen

Drew - Falcon, Colorado
Entered on March 29, 2011
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I believe in listening. It took me a long time to get to this belief. I grew up in the 80’s with its new cable channels, MTV, boom boxes blasting music, and the nonstop talking of peers around me. I never gave listening much due. In college I majored in philosophy. I learned logic and solid arguments. But, I did not learn how to listen. I was always about half listening but, more likely preparing my rebuttal.

I was in my 30’s when I finally learned to listen, really listen. At first, it was hard. I had to literally bite my tongue to keep my jaw from moving and words coming out. It was hard not to share my experiences or solutions with friends. After awhile, it became pleasurable to just listen; not just to people but to the wind, rain, birds, and even dogs barking (as long as it wasn’t two in the morning). Listening, I found, opened up a space where before there was none. In the space between thoughts and words, I was finally able to be present.

I have even noticed that a feeling of relief and understanding flows over a friend’s face when I just sit and listen to them telling me about what is going on. It could be a rough time or it could be a triumph. But, as I listen, I hold back from relating my experiences or my anecdotes. I see the appreciation during their pauses that I am not trying to steal the spotlight and the microphone. I allow my friend to be center stage and I hold my attention on them. At that time, it is their show and their time to connect. My role is to facilitate a respectful silent space.

However, in listening there is a tricky pendulum swing that rivals comedic timing. People, even when one is a good listener, want a person to respond at some point. The hard part is timing. If I don’t wait long enough the person who is talking might think I am merely interrupting and knows I am not listening. Wait too long and someone may think I have checked out and wasn’t listening in the first place. Listening can be hard, but knowing when to talk after listening is harder.

Today, I still have moments of planning what I am going to say while someone is talking, but they are a lot fewer than when I was younger. I have learned that most people aren’t looking for a solution, or suggestion. They just want to be heard. They are looking to connect with another human being and to know they are not alone. I have also learned that that is what I am longing for as well.

I believe in the power and challenge of listening, as well as the space of mutual connection that can be created by simply listening.