Counting All Listeners

I’m going to play teacher for a moment, and give you an assignment:

  1. Pay attention to all of the people you speak with for seven days, and note how many people actually listen.
  2. Pay attention to yourself in those interactions, to note if you listen.

When I say “listen”, I don’t mean only with ears. I mean to sincerely attempt to understand exactly what is being said.

Listening to others with that as the goal.

Listening to understand.

How many people do that? Do you do that?

I’ve been taking note of all interactions with people for several weeks now. They include people I know well, to people involved with monthslong projects I am a part of, to neighbors and acquaintances, to fellow attendees at a community event, to walkers that stop to talk in my front lawn, to a man using the same hiking trail as my dog and me, to strangers in checkout lines.

I can confidently say that more than 90% of people don’t listen.

Oh, they may stay quiet to allow a response to their inquiries or comments, but, comically, some don’t even allow a fragment of one sentence before they interrupt the response they themselves requested.

Some have better self control than that. They actually stay silent until I complete a brief thought, but then launch into the opinions or complaints they saw in the opportunity all along. They are using me for a human punching bag or sounding board.

Others follow what seems to be their idea of social etiquette, and do the basics of “turn-taking”, but then have put other words in my mouth than what I actually said. Some conclude I am an ally of their opinions and biases when I am not. Some conclude I am an enemy of their stances when I am not.

So many people hear what they want to hear.

They don’t use their ears or their minds, they simply project onto me what they decide I am thinking or saying. They put words in my mouth and thoughts in my head that don’t exist. They have even gone on to tell others that I said or did something that never happened.

Those kinds of “deaf” conversationalists are dangerous. They are the slanderers and liars, adding innocent names to their list of people who agree with them, or who have slighted them, or who are enemies. They remain certain of their “hearing”, when they never hear with their ears, let alone with the goal to understand.

So they “listen”, those people — technically they hear sounds come out of my mouth — but they don’t listen.

Remember that unofficial list of people I took note of in the past weeks of interactions, the less than 10% who actually listen? One great listener in particular comes to mind.

She is a longtime acquaintance but a new friend. A year ago we finally made time for one-on-one conversation. At our very first lunch among many that followed, she was a surprise, a breath of fresh air, and a glass of cold water.

She listens.

She is a veteran at it, I am certain. She lives her life respecting the thoughts and words of others. She has a goal to not just take turns spewing words, but to understand the heart, soul, intentions, and expressions of others.

I have noticed that she stays uncommitted to deciding what I’ve said until she checks with me to be sure she’s accurate. “Did you say … ?” “Do you mean … ?” If she’s in the ballpark, but still not accurate in her understanding of what I am trying to convey, she takes the time to get it right.

Then she responds with her view of it, or simply lets it be, depending on the content.

That is listening. Truly listening.

From all my weeks of noticing listeners and non-listeners, I have realized that there is power in listening.

  • The power to gain wisdom.
  • The power to gain knowledge.
  • The power to gain understanding.
  • The power to be empathetic.
  • The power to avoid harm of others.
  • The power to validate someone.
  • The power to alter someone’s course in a positive direction.

Listening well — truly listening until you understand as best as possible — is powerful.

And although it shouldn’t be, I’ve realized also that it is rare.

Maybe it’s rare because it can’t coexist with selfishness. Maybe people are generally too selfish to listen to others. It does require setting aside agendas, time, focus, and existing biases and opinions, to be a good listener. So yes, there is a cost to being a listener.

But there is also a great gain to listening well.

  • People heal under the power of being heard.
  • People trust under the power of being heard.
  • People realize their value under the power of being heard.
  • People find solutions to long-standing issues because someone listened, understood, and unveiled the fix.
  • People go on to pass those gains on to others who need to be heard.

Don’t take it lightly, listening is powerful.

Now go start that assignment.

  1. Pay attention to all of the people you speak with for seven days, and note how many people actually listen to understand.
  2. Pay attention to yourself in those interactions, to note if you listen to understand.