The Lost Art

Recently one of my facetube friends ‘liked’ on her page a post about listening, which reminded me that listening is one critical component of communication I’ve never discussed. (Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention!)

It started me thinking about listening.

I was a psychology major at university in the 1970’s, when the field was overrun with ‘psychobabble’. People ‘heard what you’re saying’, or ‘resonated to that.’ They ‘felt your pain’ as they pondered ‘the reality of the situation’. (Sheesh!) A professor of clinical psychology actually instructed her classes on how to listen:

Sit with your shoulders back and relaxed, cradle your hands in your lap. Maintain eye contact—crinkle your eyes a little. Tilt your head a bit to one side, nod as the other person speaks, and respond vocally from time to time. Say nothing judgemental or critical—respond with ‘I hear you,’ (or if it’s not too early in the morning and you can manage multisyllabic words) ‘uh-huh’. Try to put the other person at ease.

The end result was a bunch of squinty-eyed psychology majors with wry neck, bearing a striking resemblance to a bobble-head doll.

I think about some of the good listeners I’ve known in my life, and what it was about them that made them such good listeners.

For one thing, they were completely natural—none of the posing mentioned above. They listened with appropriate respectfulness. Conversations that are more like sparring are not an uncommon experience for anyone—you say about four words, and the person to whom you are speaking jumps in with a quip or comment. Good breeding insists that you respond to that remark before continuing. It happens again and again, and you may well forget what it is you were trying to convey. Such conversations are wearisome.

These listeners actually listened. They maintained eye contact, they stood in one place so I wasn’t talking to a moving target, and they didn’t interrupt. Their faces showed they were interested, as did their comments and follow-up questions.

Body language practically screams during the act of listening, and the good listeners behave naturally; the expression on their faces and the (un)relaxed manner in which they hold their bodies will certainly tell you if you’re getting through to them. They maintain eye contact, but not of the ‘deer in the headlights’ variety. It would be natural, at a party for example, to look around the room from time to time, but the people I’m thinking of devote their ‘eye-attention’ primarily to the speaker.

Listening is ironically an expressive part of communication. How a person listens says a great deal—regard, investment in the other person, interest, and response.

While I know some very good listeners, I know some dreadful listeners as well. For example, while you are talking, they nod their heads and say, ‘yes, yes’, at about four times the normal rate. They give the impression of listening faster than you are speaking. Those who interrupt constantly seem to be trying to control the conversation. Perhaps they think they are participating or showing enthusiasm, but such fractured conversations are difficult and frustrating to tolerate. I mentioned the ‘moving target’ earlier—when I encounter one of these, I feel utterly superfluous.

A good listener will not make you repeat yourself. I’m thinking at the moment of a woman whose first response invariably was ‘What?’ even when all you said was, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ Some of her contemporaries, instead of saying ‘what?’ honked ‘huh?’ I do not miss those days.

I’m also thinking about a priest I knew a long time ago. Of all the priests in his parish, he was the one most sought-after for confessions. This wasn’t because he gave the lightest penances, or even the best advice. It was because he was the best listener in the bunch, and when you left the confessional, you felt you had left many weighty burdens behind. Contrast this to one of his associate pastors, whose sermons were reminiscent of a plane endlessly circling the airport for a landing. Will Rogers should have taught at his seminary: Never miss a good chance to shut up.

I suppose the thing that impresses me the most about good listeners is a tacit understanding that a conversation, like a plant, a relationship or a promise, is a ‘living’ thing. It needs attention, nurturing, and respect. People who spend long periods in isolation appreciate this all too well. It isn’t enough to have someone to talk to; you need someone to actually heed you.

A common complaint is, ‘he never shuts up!’ I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘what a terrible conversation! All she did was listen!’

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”
― Ralph G. Nichols

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