*One of the biggest disagreements I have ever had in a professional setting occurred almost entirely because the person I was chatting with perceived that I was not listening to them. This disagreement had very real consequences, including me not continuing my work at that location for an additional year. It was a crazy situation and it lead to a crazier following week, but it happened and its cause was very simple.
To begin I want to address the difference between hearing and listening. We often use these two words interchangeably but they are in fact two separate words with two unique definitions and sets of implications.
Hearing is to simply take in auditory stimuli. We are constantly hearing as our world is full of noise; the AC unit or fan, the dripping faucet, the game, your text alert, your stomach expressing its desire for food. Hearing simply takes in that information and does nothing with it. Provided you are not hearing impaired, by being alive you hear countless things; you have no control over it, it is involuntary and passive.
Listening is taking in audio stimuli and actually sorting and packaging that into useful information within our brain. This is the next level. This is where we actually identify noises we hear and connect meaning to them. Listening is voluntary and active.
We constantly switch between these two modes of receiving information, without notice, but we should always remember that listening is a choice, it takes active engagement. I would put forth that we are constantly hearing, searching for things to listen to. In this we find our innate desire to understand and want to be understood.
It seems overly trite but the most important thing that you can do in any given conversation is listen to what is being said.
There are many obstacles that prevent us from doing this simple but critically important task.
We are so stimulated with noises and constant conversation, whether text based or auditory, that we tune out. This is entirely understandable when in a public place. You tune out the extraneous noise in order to focus on what is pertinent to you. However, in the confines of an intimate conversation this is a killer! Chances are good that most things that most people will tell you are not pertinent to your daily survival; vis-à-vis this type of “listening” ensures that you actually don’t hear anything the person says.
Our brain can actually process much more information at any given time than someone can speak. This means we can run all sorts of “back of the mind” process while we “listen”. What am I going to have for dinner? Why is this taking so long? Can I figure out where this is going? We spend so much time trying to fill in that extra brain power that we don’t actually hear anything the person says.
A major issue in the above category is figuring out what you are going to say next. To a degree this is understandable. We want to make sure the conversation continues with fluidity and we stay on track but a sad reality presents itself readily, we care more about what we are going to say than what the other person is currently saying. This is no way to usher your relationships to new depths!
It takes an act of will but you can make the choice to listen first and answer second. This may afford you some awkward moments, might let in some of the dreaded silence, it may even make you seem slow, but it will show the conversant that you actually care and are committed to this conversation, right now.
*To finish my story from above, I wasn’t listening. Not because I didn’t care, I was actually making a note about something that had just been said which rendered me incapable of attentive listening at that moment, but I still was merely hearing and not listening.
I bring this up to point a very important step in ensuring thoughtful attention in your relationships. If you are engaged in a deep conversation with someone and you perceive they are not listening to you ASK them about it.
Your gut reaction will be to assume the worst, “I’m not important enough,” or, “My problems don’t matter,” but chances are good these assumptions are incorrect. But the only person who can lay these fallacies to rest is the person apparently ignoring you. It will, most likely, be awkward to ask this question. By asking you will be letting your guard down and asking the conversant to do the same but this will clear the air.
Two things on asking a seemingly distracted person why they aren’t paying attention:
- Only do this to people who you have achieved that depth of relationship with. This should be legitimate concern NOT concern for legitimacy. If you run around asking every work acquaintance why they seemingly ignore you, you will present yourself brusque and it’s doubtful people will want to be around you.
- You do not have to ask this directly and you should never do so angrily (your intent is not to piss the other person off). Political language and kind, pleasant tones are highly recommended! This will all depend on the type and depth of relationship you have with the other person. Some examples, “you seem a bit distracted, is everything okay?”; “it seems you’ve had a rough day, should we talk about this later?”; “looks like you are doing something important, should we talk once you are finished?”
To sum up this vagabond’s trial of thoughts, I want to mention that I listened to a TED talk on this once and I found the talk to be very powerful and convicting. I have attached the link here if you have some free time please give it a listen, but only if you are actually going to attentively listen.
Gentlemen, it sounds childish and silly but be good listeners; some of the best relationships I have grew from this simple starting place. And heck, you might actually learn something in the process!