We all know what it is like to not feel listened to. It hurts when you are sitting there with a friend or loved-one and they are so busy making rebuttals that they are arguing against things you are not even saying. It is frustrating and discouraging.
But we should not be too quick to judge everyone else. Do we have good listening skills ourselves? Or do we go on the defensive when we are challenged too? Are we so consumed with our own opinion that we launch into an opinionated diatribe oblivious to how much we are titillated by the sound of our own voice?
However strong listening skill is less about sounds entering the ears as it is learning to care and be present. Needless to say we all can use improvement in our active listening skills. Here are some observations I have picked up from both experience and the life of Jesus.
1. Good Eye Contact – I sometimes find myself looking off at the floor or a tree engrossed in my own thoughts when talking. Many of us really get almost unnerved with the appropriate intimacy of of making good and frequent eye contact. Too much eye contact can be creepy, but very little is more common and certainly off-putting.
When a rich young man came to Jesus and asked him what he needed to do to find eternal life, The Gospel of Mark observes the following: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). Jesus beheld the rich young man as a person. Interestingly Jesus did not castigate him for his rejection of his message. Jesus seemed to hold the presence of this man before him as precious. It strikes me as lovely, like Jesus so deeply regarded both the man and his decision that Jesus began mourning the relationship before the conversation came to its close.
2. Be Aware of Your Emotions — Paying attention to your emotions goes a long way. There is a space that exists between stimuli and our responses. Essentially the shorter that space is, the more reactive we will be, and our responses will be less thought out and deliberative.
Acting on instinct has its place, but conversations / relationships is not one of them. Instincts are designed for the survival of the individual and the whole human race. The urge to swerve out of the way of an oncoming car, or the natural visually stimulated impulses for procreation are important. Without cool non-emotive restraint, instincts and emotions become a liability.
Instinctive thinking emanates from the small part of the brain called the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that we have in common with every living thing. It could be called the “lizard brain” because that is all a poor reptilian’s got. We humans have an amygdala too and it encompasses our survival instincts, but we also have much more. We also have the cortex (all mammals) and the prefrontal cortex, humans only. Deliberative intelligent thinking centers in the prefrontal cortex, which must tame the amygdala or problems are brewing.
Emotional awareness is the deciding factor in whether a challenging conversation will melt down or be productive. The person who can tame the emotions, resist reacting, and stay calm, will have the most influence on communication outcomes.
Paying attention to your emotions can also tell you a lot about yourself. As people say things offensive or challenging to you, some things will roll off you without a thought; others will irritate you; still others may throw you into a potential rage. Emotional urges can serve as cues to help you locate the subtle idols of heart. What are the areas of your identity that are particularly sensitive? Why do you think so? You may discover some important revelations about yourself by examining these responses.
3. Slow your breathing – Take a gentle but deep calming breath in that space between what is spoken and your response. Learn to gently sigh. Not out loud to draw attention. Learn the practice of a good exhale and gentle inhale. Whenever we hear criticism or something we do not like, our anxiety begins to rise in the gut; Anxiety can be extremely physical—both motivating and debilitating. The normal response to tension in the body is to start to hyperventilate. We are most often unaware of how our body is reacting. But other people are sensing it.
4. Stop constructing a response while the person is talking – This is the time to inhale their words, not be exhaling your own. Trust me, if you say nothing at all, they will often feel far more honored than if you say anything at all.
Moreover, you cannot have two conversations at the same time. You can either have one with yourself or one with them. If you are building a rebuttal while the other person is still speaking, you will miss most of what she or he is saying. This means your response will probably be based more on what you think they are communicating, not on what they actually are trying to communicate.
5. Ask Clarifying Questions – Asking clarifying questions can both defuse and give insight. When someone is upset, anxious, or even criticizing you, it is easy to jump to conclusions. Asking good questions gives you the space to be calm, makes the other person feel listened to, and gives insight.
Also I do not mean snide or trapping questions like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day did to him. Those kind of questions are not true listening and will make things degenerate. Also be careful of “why?” questions. These tend to put people back on their heels and antagonize. (These are the kind the Pharisees always asked.) Ask genuine questions using “what” or “how.”
For example: “What was it in my words that upset you?” or “How do you think I can be more sensitive to your needs?” or “What is it that is most important to you right now?”
6. Ask for the person to summarize — Once they have unloaded, if you do not completely understand, ask them to summarize. When you ask someone to summarize, they will often feel doubly honored.
7. Be Aware of Non-Verbal Communication — You need to be aware of non-verbal communication in both you and the other person. Learning to pay attention to the other person’s non-verbal communication, shifting eyes, fidgeting, or relaxing postures all say differing things. The good listener is good at observing too. She or he can begin to see how the other person is responding to what is being said, positively or negatively. It may signal that you are doing too much talking.
Conclusion: Good listening has really more to do with your entire frame of mind and personal constitution than it does simply receiving sounds into the ear canals. Good listening is about presence, consideration, and interpreting the communicative impulses sent your way. Listening is obtaining a frame of mind to be able to exegete the heart behind the flurry of words. As we do this we will become more connected and engaged in all our relationships.
What are your thoughts? Please share!
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