“Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” –Andre Gide
Listening is one of the most difficult skills to master and is also one that we receive almost no formal training in, a dangerous combination. Most disagreements could be resolved, or even completely avoided, if all of us took the time and effort to really listen to each other. Today I am not going to focus on how to listen (although I do offer talks, workshops, and coaching on the topic through my Roll Models program), and instead I am going to focus on what listening can create between people when done correctly, a stronger, more trusting conversational environment.
Due to my disability, I have a team of nurses that care for me. One of them is always by my side to help me with whatever I need (if you have seen me speak or attended my Roll Models workshops, they were “my lovely assistant”). These amazing individuals wear many hats throughout the day from nurse, to chef, to chauffeur, to mechanic, and they constantly go above and beyond to make my life better. Over time, they become more like family than nurses, and like most families, we share our lives with one another. It is through this process that I got lots of practice doing empathic listening. By developing this skill I built a social environment of complete trust and empathy. As a result, I have had nurses divulge events from their lives that most people would only tell their priest in the confessional. And I hope, that in giving them the feeling of safety, respect, and empathy, that they felt better after our conversations.
As a result of the conversational environment of respect we created, I said to a nurse one day after she had shared something very upsetting from her past, “I am so honored that you feel safe talking to me, but I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why.” Her response was so simple yet insightful, “When I talk to you, you hear my feelings, not just my words.” The mere fact that I listened to her without my perspective, judgment, or any plan to respond, but instead with the goal of understanding what was behind her words, was all that was needed. She didn’t need me to try to “fix it”, or even to respond at all. No, all she wanted was to actually be heard without judgment or putting my spin on it.
All to often we listen to each other and we are either thinking of what to say next, focusing on how we feel about what they are saying, or thinking about something else entirely. These types of listening often cause the real message that is being conveyed by the speaker to be misinterpreted or lost entirely, which leads to disagreements, misunderstandings, and distrust. Only by taking the time and effort to emphatically listen, without judgment, and seeing things from their perspective can we accurately receive their message. And by doing so, create a stronger relationship and conversational environment.