Learning To Listen
by Laura Davis
In a culture which honors "doing," multi-tasking and filling in all the empty spaces in the day, the art of listening has been all but lost. Even in the best of circumstances, listening is hard and when people feel angry, hurt, or feeling backed into a corner, the difficulty magnifies.
Fortunately, you don't have to be good at listening in order to become better at it. Listening is a discipline. Like playing scales on a piano, the more you work at it, the better you become. All it takes is a clear intention and the willingness to practice.
It's best to start with conversations in which you don't have a lot at stake--a neighbor you're chatting with over the fence or an old friend you bump into at the grocery store. Observe where your mind goes when you are supposedly listening. Pay attention to how frequently you think of the past or the future, how often you are busy planning your next sentence rather than hearing what is being said. Notice how quickly and incorrigibly your mind hops away. At first, this can be disconcerting-when you realize for the first time how infrequently you actually listen.
Once you have become familiar with the erratic ramblings of your mind, practice reining your mind back in. Every time you notice your attention drifting, gently bring it back. Don't judge yourself. Just notice that your mind has wandered off again and refocus it on listening.
The object of these exercises is not perfection. It's gradually increasing your ability to concentrate, your capacity to listen, and your awareness of your own unique and idiosyncratic mind.
When you've gotten the hang of this (at least on a rudimentary level), try it in a conversation where you have a little more at stake. Practice listening when you feel stressed or upset. Try it with your boss or with your children when they are screaming at you. See if you can listen then.
When you attempt to listen to someone with whom you've had a conflict, it's normal for a myriad of feelings to emerge. Anger, surprise, sadness, fear, defensiveness, fury, optimism, hopelessness, confusion, or numbness may all arise within a short span of time. As the other person talks, it's likely that your brain will fill with a rapid succession of judgments, thoughts, and ideas: "I cannot believe she said that!" "Why does he always have to go on and on like that?" 'I don't want to hear this crap anymore!" Your mind may busily churn out a dozen rebuttals: "But I remember When you said..." "That's not the way it happened! You're wrong!" "You think you had it bad, what about the time you..."
If your goal is to listen, rather than to escalate or prolong a conflict, notice these thoughts, judgments and admonitions, but do not get waylaid by them. Instead, let them pass through your awareness and bring your mind back to your deeper intention. Every time a voice in your head says, "Why should I even bother talking to her?" remind yourself, "My job right now is to listen." Every time your mind wanders, come back to the thing you truly desire: "I want to discern the truth of this situation." "I want to understand the core of this human being."
© Laura Davis, 2002. This is an excerpt from I Thought We'd Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation (HarperCollins, April 2002). You can get a free "Am I Ready for Reconciliation?" Workbook, subscribe to Laura Davis' eZine, "Reconciliation News" or find out about her teleclasses at http://www.LauraDavis.net/