Are You Listening?

“On the tumble-down farm on the side of the hill lived a rooster called Rickety Rackety because he made a terrible racket from night till noon.”  So writes Jan Wahl in her children’s story Rickety Rackety Rooster.  Rickety’s racket intensifies throughout the story as people ignore, scold, or belittle him for his noisiness. Finally, his racket becomes unbearable, so at last, someone goes over to Rickety and offers to listen. Instantly, he moves from his spot, revealing a huge cache of gold coins!

How much like real life this children’s story is!  No one really listens to us until we make an unbearable racket or do something dramatic to get attention. The cache of gold coins inside us remains hidden because no one listens.

A few years ago, I was listening to a middle-aged woman share her feelings and aspirations. She was not a disturbed person. Mostly, she was lonely.  In mid-sentence, she became silent and stared ahead thoughtfully. I waited. She sighed  before she spoke, then said, ”You know, I just realized if my husband would sit and listen to me the way you do, I would not have to be here.”

Women frequently tell me their partner does not talk to them. They wonder what their partner is thinking and feeling. They wish they knew more about his dreams and fears. They worry about what might be bothering him. They feel left out of his life. Why is this? Part of the reason might be because they are not good listeners.

How well do you listen?

Many people think they are good listeners but still commit many listening errors. The following questions will help you evaluate your listening skills.

1. Do you race ahead or argue mentally with your partner? If you do, your mind is divided and you are less likely to accurately hear everything said to you. When you respond, you may be reacting to only part of the message. 

2. Do you look at your partner while listening? When you look away, down at the floor, or up at the ceiling, you convey disinterest or disagreement which inhibits communication. 

3. Do you engage in other activities while listening?  So many exchanges occur while one or both of you are watching television, reading the paper, or preparing a meal. Doing something else while listening gives the impression what is being said is unimportant. 

4. Do you quickly react emotionally. Once your emotions rise, you lose your ability to listen non-defensively. You risk distorting what your partner is saying, so misunderstanding and conflict are a likely result. 

5. Do you interrupt frequently? This is the most common listening error. When you interrupt, you break the flow of your partner’s thoughts or inhibit the expression of feelings. 

6. Do you offer advice? When you offer advice, you are not listening. You are trying to be a problem-solver and fix things. Immediately offering advice hinders your partner’s ability to clarify thoughts and feelings, or effectively problem-solve on his or her own. 

Now the good news!  A basic truth about human communication is that all communication is learned . You may have learned poor listening habits, but you can unlearn them and replace them with new ones. Listening is a skill, and learning any new skill has three components: desire, information, and practice. You probably already have the desire to be a better listener, because you are reading this article. The rest of this article provides you with some of the ideas and tools you need to be a better listener. All that remains is practice. Of course, practice means making mistakes until you become more proficient. Do not be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them.

How to become a better listener.

There are a few general points to remember about listening. Listening is a delicate process, as easily damaged as a butterfly’s wings or a flower’s petals.  A grimace, a gesture, a sigh, or a glance can derail a conversation and send it into an abyss.

Hectic schedules do not afford meaningful conversation. There are so many demands and time pressures, you usually neglect quiet time with each other. Give listening a much higher priority than you do now.  If you really want your partner to talk to you, you need to make time for listening a part of your daily activities. This is especially difficult when you both work and have children. One way to work around children is to be together when they are not present. If you want to do this in your home, you might consider getting up a half-hour earlier in the morning. Before you awaken the children, the house is quiet and there are no interruptions. Another possibility is to get the children in their rooms or in bed earlier. Initially, you may encounter considerable resistance from them, but if you remain firm, they will settle into the new routine.

Another way is to leave the house. Take a long walk or a bicycle ride. Go to a quiet restaurant and linger over coffee or a cup of tea. Take a short drive together and park somewhere for a while. Some working couples can arrange to have lunch together on a regular basis. Another option is to take a class together or participate in a church activity, then tack on a little extra time for yourselves beforehand or afterward. The theme that characterizes all of these suggestions is a passion for listening and a commitment to getting your partner in an environment that is conducive to conversation.

When you take time to listen to your partner, you need to be a skillful listener. What constitutes good listening? Over fifty years ago, a psychologist named Carl Rogers offered a therapeutic approach he called “client-centered” therapy. Rogers quickly gained a wide following, and his methods were subjected to scientific scrutiny. Study after study revealed that his approach worked–people felt better and functioned more effectively after short-term “client-centered” therapy. The hallmark of his approach was to uncritically, non-judgmentally, and compassionately listen. Rogers avoided asking questions or giving answers. Rather, he restated in his own words what was said, allowing the client to clarify and understand his or her true feelings.

Thomas Gordon in his book, Parent Effectiveness Training introduced a way to listen to children which he named “active listening.” He wrote, “In active listening, then, the receiver tries to understand what it is the sender is feeling or what the message means . . . The receiver does not send a message of his own——such as an evaluation, opinion, advice, logic, analysis, or a question. He feeds back only what he feels the sender’s message meant——nothing more, nothing less.”  Each partner continues doing this until both can say to each other that they understand and are understood.

Fortunately, you do not have to be a trained therapist to be a good listener. By following a few simple guidelines, you begin to appreciate the power of listening.

Guidelines for listening.

1 . Listen to your partner uncritically and non-judgmentally.  If you suspend judgment completely, you are much more likely to hear what your partner is saying. When you become defensive, you discourage honest feedback from your partner.  Your partner shuts down and goes underground.  Years later, you are shocked when your partner suddenly announces he or she wants a divorce!

2. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. The nonverbal aspects of communication are the best avenue to identifying feelings and intentions. Pay attention to such things a body posture, tone of voice, gestures, facial expression, rate of speech, and eye movement.  How the words are spoken is much more informative than the words themselves.

3. Get in close proximity to your partner when you listen. At least be close enough so he or she feels your presence or you can touch each other. Your hand on his shoulder or her taking your hand at just the right moment might be the encouragement he or she needs to reveal deep feelings.

4. Avoid asking a lot of questions. You probably put your partner on the defensive when you ask too many questions. Rather than feel listened to, he or she feels interrogated. An occasional, well-timed question that brings clarity is appropriate and indicates that you are sincerely listening.

5. Allow your partner to be upset, hurt, afraid, bewildered, or mad.  Do not immediately try to make him or her feel better. When you are immediately compelled to make your partner feel better, you tend to give advice or offer sympathy, neither of which are likely to be helpful at that moment.

6. Restate in your own words what you hear your partner saying. Like a mirror, you reflect what you have heard, so your partner knows you understand what is being said. Once your partner realizes you do understand, he or she is more likely to experience huge relief and will continue sharing.

7. Be willing to share yourself with your partner. Self-disclosure begets self-disclosure. Your partner will be more open when you are more revealing.

8. Avoid interrupting if at all possible. Someone once said God gave us two ears and one mouth to show us listening is twice as important as talking.  Only one person can speak at a time, and if you are talking, your partner will remain silent.

There is a cache of gold coins inside your partner, waiting to be revealed to you.  If only you will listen!

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