Updated: Dec 22, 2022
By Brenda Riojas, I Start Wondering Columnist
Have you ever been called out for not listening to the person who is sitting right in front of you? I am guilty. My husband has on more than one occasion stopped in mid-sentence while talking to me when he sees that I am not even looking in his direction, my attention focused on a text message or some other distraction. Not only is that rude and disrespectful on my part, but it is also not conducive to active listening.
With a deep understanding of the importance of listening and dialogue, Pope Francis initiated a two-year consultation process in 2021 with a call to “look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say.” He uses three verbs – encounter, listen and discern – to emphasize the key elements of the process.
Let’s consider first our understanding of the word “listening.” Sometimes we might think we are listening, but I have observed too often that people are more intent on speaking. Rather than truly listening to what another person is saying, some are simply waiting for their turn to have their say.
Listening takes effort. We have to ascertain if we are truly listening to someone with the goal of understanding and learning from another. Or are we intent on putting forward our own opinions without a genuine willingness to listen to another, to respect that we each may have a different opinion? After all, we each come from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
Beginning with our families at home and the early lessons we received in communication from our parents, we each have different realities and different approaches.
Active & Compassionate Listening
For active listening, the essentials include time, respect, and patience. First, we must take time and be fully present. Silence your phone and set it aside. If we start with the understanding that to listen is to be present for another, we can proceed with the intention of hearing another, of gifting another our time and attention. We show our respect by acknowledging that at that moment, the person before us has our full attention.
Don’t be impatient for your turn to talk. We don’t have to do all the talking to fill what we call on the radio “dead air.” Give another time to share their story, opinion, thoughts, or concern. Wait for the person to finish what they have to say. Repeat or paraphrase what you heard to confirm you understood what they meant.
Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash
A key to listening is word choice and meaning-making sure we share an understanding of the words used. At times the same word may be interpreted differently. Let’s remember that when it comes to language, we are navigating “a maze of little streets and squares,” as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted in his book Philosophical Investigations.
Practice compassionate listening. Listen with your eyes, but also with your whole body. Listen to what the person before you wants to share or needs to share with you. St. Benedict advised that we listen with the ear of the heart.
Sometimes our own preconceptions get in the way. We want people to think as we do.
Stephen Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, lists listening as Habit 5: Seek first to understand … Then to be understood. He notes, “Really listening to get inside another person’s mind and heart is called ‘empathic’ listening. It’s listening with empathy. It’s trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes.”
In these days when the current climate in the world demonstrates that many are not listening, I highly recommend we take some time to evaluate our own listening skills.
What is your level of interest in the other person? Can you set aside your own biases and agenda? Identify the obstacles that get in your way of actively listening to another. Perhaps it is impatience or pride in thinking you have all the answers. Or maybe it is past hurts and experiences. What is your disposition at the time — are you tired or have another matter that is distracting you?
Teach Your Children Well
As we look at ways of becoming better listeners, consider what Pope Francis said, “How good is the ‘hearing’ of our heart?” Perhaps we can schedule some time with our families to talk about the art of listening.
A good starting point is reading together the chapter on Habit 5 in the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. In this book, Covey takes the seven habits outlined in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1. Be Proactive, 2. Begin with the End in Mind, 3. Put First Things First, 4. Think Win-Win, 5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood, 6. Synergize, and 7. Sharpen the Saw), and offers examples of how to apply them to situations within families – from problem-solving to communication.
At the core of listening is love. Jesus Christ tells us: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another (Jn. 13:34).”
What steps can you take to be a better listener today?