Listening I

By Marilyn Hay


How
many people truly listen well? How much more common is it to ‘hear’
what we expect to hear, or to jump in to put our own views forward
rather than concentrate on what the other person is saying? Sometimes
we make assumptions about what the speaker is saying, about their
intentions. We color everything with our worldview, with what matters
to us. If we don’t trust the boss, we won’t believe what they’re saying
or we’ll think they have some hidden agenda. If we feel vulnerable, we
may well perceive threats that are implied, not real. If we have
something to sell, we may listen for an opening to put our ideas or
goods on the table. How often do we bemoan or hear others wail, “Nobody
listens to me!”

Listening takes work and effort. It takes
consciously setting aside ingrained expectations or beliefs. It
requires we take a real interest in the other person, and that we
engage in really wanting to understand what they are saying.

The
experience of being actively listened to is so rare that encountering a
person who listens with such focused intensity can be disconcerting. It
is an uncommon experience. When you feel you are actively being
listened to, that people are focused on you as if you are the only
person in the world in that moment, it can be truly astonishing. Active
listeners have impact because most, if not all, people are grateful to
be heard in this way. When you’re ‘being heard’, you’ll take note of
that attention, be grateful for it and pay attention to the listener,
even if that listener is only one person in a hall filled with hundreds
of people.

When I was working as the Deputy Chief of Staff,
Civilian Personnel, for Canada’s Air Force, I met with the local union
president who had a reputation for being irascible and bombastic. He
was a very large, imposing man with a wild beard, and he stormed into
the meeting room, scarcely shaking my hand before plopping into a
chair. He spent twenty minutes haranguing me, shouting and pounding the
table. It was, as you may imagine, a trifle disconcerting to be yelled
at for such a prolonged period, but I listened, took a few notes, and
waited until he’d run out of steam. There was no question that he was
passionate about his concerns and, though his manner was combative, the
issues and his demands were reasonable. When he stopped, I told him
that I’d understood most of the points he’d made but before discussing
them, I wanted to clarify a few things, and posed my specific questions
to obtain more information. Well, the poor man’s jaw dropped and he
gasped, “You listened to me? My God, no one has ever listened to me
before!” His anger and vehemence had escalated to the point where he
felt he had to shout and pound the table in a desperate attempt to be
heard. But because I had listened, he never again raised his voice with
me. From then on, he conducted himself in a reasonable, amenable manner
and we were able to achieve some positive change together over the
years.

Some time later, when I sent flowers to his father’s
funeral, he was again stunned by the acknowledgement, surprised that
‘management’ would do such a thing. When my father died a few years
later, he and his wife sent a beautiful air plant, a kind of delicate
green moss, in a brass wheel to symbolize eternity. Nearly twenty years
has passed since then, and this man and his wife have both since died.
Each time I look at the plant, I remember their kindness and their
friendship … and it all came to pass simply because I had listened to
him when no one else ever had.

Listening. Such a simple concept, too rarely practiced.

Tomorrow, of all days, listen to those around you, especially the ones you love. 

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