On Listening

The need to be heard is deeply embedded in me.  When I feel the listener gets what I’m trying to convey (even if they don’t agree) a physical sense of contentment comes over me.  On the flip side, when my words are ignored or replaced with the listener’s own story or interests, a combination of anger, upset, and frustration consume me.  It’s the way I’m wired.  

As a result of being this way, I purposely remind myself (because I still forget to follow my preference for being a good listener) to use one of the seven habits of highly effective people created by author Stephen Covey: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.  I actually prefer to listen first.  It helps me determine whether it is a good time for the other person to engage in an open dialogue or not.  What I hear gives me clues about what they are interested in and enables me to make a connection before I enter into a dialogue that might be important only to me.  Often, I’m not even aware that I’m doing this.  Only now, as I develop this piece on listening, am I cognizant that this seems to be what I do and why.  

I’m not sure why I get so frustrated by those who appear to be disconnected from what I say or disingenuous when they ask me a question and then choose to ignore my response and follow a strand that leads them to tell their own story.  I remember vividly, being in a meeting with about 15 school administrator colleagues and the topic was an issue that I felt was extremely important to the future of the district.  We were asked to prepare our comments ahead of time and we would all be given a chance to present them for discussion before a decision was made. When it was my turn, I spoke with what I felt was intention, clarity, and passion.  When I finished the facilitator simply said, “Okay” and when on to another person.  There was no asking if anyone had any questions, how they felt, the pros and cons of my proposal on the issue, or even a thank you for my thinking.  It was as if I hadn’t even spoken.  I didn’t know it at the time, but my friend and colleague seated next to me said he felt me rising out of my chair and, sensing my immense frustration, rubbed my back as one would do to a small child who was about to explode with rage.  The final decision appeared to be a fait accompli and therefore, in the end, none of our ideas or suggestions seemed to matter.

As I thought about that incident throughout my career, I vowed never to allow any of my constituents to feel dismissed or unheard.  Of course I had no control of how people might feel and even though I worked hard at getting to understand what my staff and teammates might be saying, I’m sure I missed some along the way.  But I realized that as long as I tried to understand and acknowledge their meaning and intention, they should never feel as dismissed and unheard as I did at that meeting.

I have known both extremes to the behavior of listening.  I once worked with a woman who had developed such a devotion to listening to others that she never spoke of or about herself.  She deflected questions with one or few word answers and immediately defaulted to asking about the other person.  She remembered details about their last conversation and quickly engaged them.  People felt heard, cared for, and valued by her.  Somehow, for me, there was a void in not knowing her opinions or more about her own life.

There are others, of course, who have such a need to share or vent or explain that they often dominate a conversation or take what I say and link it to their own story.  Sometimes, it enhances what I was trying to illustrate but much of the time it misses my point and becomes more about them.  It is in those times that I become quiet.

I’ve learned a few things about myself when it comes to listening:

  • I need to increase my tolerances for listening, interruptions, and storytelling             
  • Less talk and more thought make conversations more fulfilling
  • Blogging gives me all the time I need to tell my stories and share my opinions

“When we listen, we hear someone into existence.”― Laurie Buchanan, PhD

The Wise Old Owl

I have a problem.  Ask Henry or Wally and they will tell you.  But there is a reason, and I know I have used this excuse before in defense of other bad habits, but it is fitting.  I am Italian.  As Henry and Wally let me know every time we are together, either by a roll of eyes or a forced cough, I interrupt, break into their discourse and have to share an idea. A jury would find me guilty. But back to the Italian thing.  My extended family consisted of about 15 free ranging Italians all hungry and waiting for dinner to be served.  Momentarily while the food was being placed on the table there was a hush that came over the dining room.  As soon as my dad sat down at the head of the table all Hell broke loose.  My aunts would announce that they weren’t really hungry and they would just pick, as they filled their plates with everything in sight.  At first the conversation was, “please pass the macaroni” and then evolved into ,”Gimme the Italian bread!”  This wasn’t done in polite courteous discourse, it soon became cruder and louder and all at the same time.  As a child I learned that I couldn’t just wait for a pause in the chatter because there was never a pause, so you had to raise your voice and as a kid occasionally stand up and point to what you wanted.  If I just waited for a pause in the conversation I would starve plus after a few minutes my mom, my dad or my aunts would shout across the table to me with, “What’s the matter, why aren’t you eating anything? ” So with that as my background it is a hard habit to break.

On the other hand, my Welsh grandfather would quote the wise old owl (not sure what scholar really came up with this so I can’t include his name in the credits) and tell my brother and I that we were born with one mouth and two ears, so we were meant to listen twice as much as we spoke. Not bad advice at all.  But being a little kid and a snarky one at that, I would always say he should come to one of our Sunday dinners and bring that owl. But Grampa would just say, “When in Rome……” which I didn’t really understand because we lived in Flushing  So breaking the habits of interrupting and speaking loudly has been a life long goal and obviously one I have not yet achieved.  I don’t do it to be rude, much of the time something that was said got me excited and I wanted to contribute and having no vocal boundaries I just jumped right in. I do admit that sometimes during a conversation, a pretty bird or an insect or something attracts my attention and I want the other people to see it too so I interrupt again.  Habits are hard to break and having little self discipline interferes with my success.  To this predicament aging is also a contributing factor. If I don’t tell you my idea right now, by the time you stop talking I may have lost it…….just sayin’.

I was a teacher for 35 years and a union president for the last 10.  So I had to listen. The union position was especially difficult because I had to listen to a teacher’s problems. If I was sitting at my desk in the office I would be pinching my knee beneath my desk reminding me not to interrupt.  And that worked for the most part.  Everyone wants to be heard. I know that and it is probably because of my insecurities that I force myself on others to be heard.  It isn’t because I’m not listening or not interested, it is just that I am convinced I have something so important to share that I just can’t wait for the pause so I watch very closely to see when the person takes a breath and jump in.

I have a lot of work to do still and I’m running out of time.  Old dogs take a lot longer to learn new tricks.  Shiny objects always attract my attention and I am so sorry to hear about your broken leg, but Look, an army tank just drove passed the house!

Vocal Boundaries

I think George is onto something in raising the issue of vocal boundaries – and crossing them in order to be heard. I suppose that in a competitive environment, you need to be assertive to make a point, even if that means interrupting or changing the topic of conversation. But is all conversation really competitive? Is conversational space a scarce resource?

George and I kid about interrupting Hen before he can say 25 words.  It’s a joke, because Hen does not blather on, but rather gets to a point pretty efficiently. We can tease Hen, because he is generally pretty tolerant about being conversationally short-sheeted. Similarly, I might roll my eyes at George, whenever he jumps in to take the conversation in a different direction. The eye-roll is not meant to be demeaning:  I (and Hen) appreciate George’s spontaneity and wit – and the conversation usually becomes more interesting. The bottom line is that we are comfortable with each other and realize that we all care enough to eventually give one another the opportunity to express a point of view, despite eye-rolls, interruptions, and lots of laughter.

Caring is the key. George’s family could cross vocal boundaries, because they demonstrated in a hundred ways that they recognized each other as people that mattered. It seems to be a different story when someone demonstrates that you are not valued enough to be allowed conversational space – and worse — gloss over your ideas without really listening. Unfortunately, I’ll bet we’ve all been on both sides of that discourse!

It seems to me that the urge to dominate the airwaves increases with age. Many of my senior friends feel compelled to share their stories — either before it’s too late, or before they forget. There is rarely a drop-the-mic moment, because the mic is held in a death-grip. I don’t buy George’s point that the urge to share doesn’t interfere with listening (sorry for the double negative!). Of course it does: the teller is focusing on the next point instead of asking questions for clarification. 

To go even further, I suggest (as many others have suggested) that the inability to repeat back what another person has said to you – in a manner that causes the other to signal that you heard correctly – is a major national problem these days. Wonder what would happen if we took a rule to share stories, one-for-one and asked as many questions as we used declaratives?

excerpt from Please Just Listen by Jessie Swick

…”Perhaps that’s why prayer works—because god is mute,
And he doesn’t give advice or try
To fix things,
God just listens and lets you work
it out for yourself.
So please listen, and just hear me.
And if you want to talk, wait a minute
For your turn—and I will listen to you.”

2 thoughts on “On Listening

  1. Oh Brooks, I feel your pain! It happened way too often in those meetings. No one listened or reacted. The Whiners ruled!
    Best to you, my friend. You gave it your best shot!



    1. Thanks, Lindsay! And you would know as you were the one who rubbed my back as well as sent a calming note via the secretary the year you retired! People, such as yourself, who really know how to listen, add huge value to the lives of others. Hugs!


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