The Invisible Art of Listening

The Invisible Art of Listening

“Is there anything you want to say but not out loud?” is a question on brother Mac’s counselor’s questionnaire which is often checked. Does that describe you? Sometimes?  Knowing that a person may be withholding what they want/need to say may be the turning point of theirs or someone else’s lives. Like the story of the shy female whose suiter said “I missed your last words”. “That’s okay,” she said faintly.  “Everything you say matters to me,” he persisted. “Please tell me what you said.”  “I’m afraid you won’t like it”, she said, shrugging slightly. “Go ahead”, he urged. “I said something about our future.” Her honest words unlocked his confidence and courage to propose. Yes, words changed her and his worlds.

One goal as good listeners should be ‘to leave no doubt in the speaker’s mind that we value whatever is being said so much so that we’ll endeavor to hear every word’.  In pre-marriage counseling, Jim and I coached couples regarding maintaining open and honest communication by each forming the habit of repeating what the other said, such as “I just heard you say….” which proved the other was listening as well as giving opportunity for a correction if any is needed by the speaker.  Sounds like an easy thing to do, but actually it really requires patience and practice. We all know how easy it is to think we heard clearly but we wisely admit that sometimes our minds, like cell phones, cut out words.

Mac and I have compared counseling experiences where we predominantly listened rather than spoke.   A client wouldn’t quit speaking long enough for him to verbally evaluate her situation until he finally told her that he’d like an opportunity to respond to all that she’d said so far.

And years ago, after I said to a new client, “How can I help you, Eva”, the only comments I made during the next hour were, “oh”, “really”, “hmm”, etc.  When her time was up, she rose to leave even though I I had said nothing. But as I walked with her to the door she said “May I hug you? You’ve helped me more than anyone else ever has.”  Evidently, a listening session was all that she needed.

A prospective client called saying he didn’t want to come in person but just wanted me to listen. I agreed but said “Before we do that, Larry, I need to get some information for my files”. He wasn’t resisting giving the information, but said “When you finish, will I get to talk?”  “Yes, of course.  This will only take five minutes.” But he said again, “Will there be enough time left for me to talk?”  “I promise that you will have a full hour to speak, Larry.”  And that’s what he wanted. No advice, encouragement, solutions or handouts.  I just listened.  How that helped, I’m not sure, but he was satisfied because he called me a few weeks later to make another listening appointment.  Many have shared that often as they listen to themselves talk the lights go on.

Extroverts agree that learning to listen requires skill.  Introverts naturally prefer listening rather than speaking.  Finding a good balance between the two is our goal, but today’s focus is paying attention to barely-heard comments enough to say “Excuse me, I didn’t hear your last words.” What was just barely breathed out or muttered may not only be hesitant and painful words but perhaps most revealing in opening the window for receiving help.  Or possibly, giving the speaker insight to an idea in his/her mind which may be a surprise, even to them.  Just like our clients who spoke the entire time providing answers to their own questions.

But then there are those who speak clearly but may utter something quietly, like the shy female. Parents, teachers, employers and mates may ignore what trails off under someone’s breath which often is the most-honest expression revealing what a child/person is actually thinking about doing or not doing. How a person is asked to repeat a response is also important. Politely requesting, not demanding and using a non-offensive “I” statement such as, “I didn’t hear your last few words.”  Barely audible words are often heavy with importance and untold value. If a person isn’t comfortable repeating, forcing the issue will injure your relationship in the long run. When we value every word and maintain eye contact, the speaker—young or old—will feel valued.

Another area that demands careful listening occurs during an interrupted conversation by requesting the speaker continue what they were originally saying.  I’m sure you’ve experienced being in the middle of your story or opinion when an interruption grabs your listener (s) attention. When normalcy resumes and no one urges you to pick up where you left off, that’s pretty good indication that others weren’t listening carefully or what you were saying hadn’t met the rapt-attention-level you had assumed. Let it go!

Or has someone close to you said “Speak up, you’re mumbling.”  Or “Don’t walk away when you talk; you mumble.”  That’s what Jim used to say to me. And even though a blunt Deacon’s wife said several times, “Jim, you need to get hearing aids,” he paid her no mind. He assumed that if he wasn’t hearing correctly, it was certainly the other person’s fault. Losing hearing happens so stealthily that those afflicted just cannot believe that the conversational disconnect is actually with them. Everyone at church was happy when Jim no longer had to say “Can you repeat that?”  And I no longer heard “You’re mumbling”.  (This is not exactly where I thought this blog was going to take us, but evidently, someone needs encouragement to do themselves a favor or maybe their mate and get a hearing test which is nearly always free.) When a person isn’t responding to your conversation, it may not be due to lack of interest as much as impaired hearing.

Listening, a significant body-language communication skill, merits helpful guidelines. Attempt to face elderly folk and children when listening. Their facial expressions also transmit messages. Many older folks read lips without our knowledge.  I remember that my Grandma Annis moved near and looked directly at me when I was speaking.  She mouthed the words as others spoke.  Seventy years ago, I wasn’t privy to elderly declines, but etched in my mind is Grandma’s delight in hearing the birds sing and the clock ticking with help from newfangled hearing aids.

A few listening tips: for those who are adjusting to the hearing loss of someone in the family, face them, be patient, speak a bit more clearly and loudly. Practice brevity. I know, some parents believe their teenaged children have lost their hearing, but believe me, that problem is attitude, not hearing.  I’m reminded about how we dealt with our little children who were in a big hurry to play in their room, ride their bikes or play tag when we wanted to chat. Getting on their level, taking hold of their hands and saying quietly, “Roger, look at me and listen.” (I can hear Jim saying that.) Privacy, physical level, eye-contact and soft voice are the team players.  This approach spells respect personified.

The last tip is a reminder to allow longer than you might need for some people for responses. Some people—especially Introverts and maybe the elderly--need more time to think over several potential answers before they decide which one to choose.  (That would be a good practice for Extroverts to adopt, including me). Extroverts wrongly assume when someone doesn’t respond quickly that they either didn’t hear us or they would rather not comment on what we just said or asked.

Improving the hearing body-language communication-skill joins the other senses in contributing to healthy balancing of our lifestyle and friendships and will enrich your life.

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.” Ps: 116:1-2

Father, thank you for listening to us and for answering our prayers.