A Partial View of the Mental Business Behind Listening

Just sit there a minute. Allow yourself the chance to listen to the sounds of this other person’s words.

You can avoid making eye contact with this person while you listen. It’s okay to do this every now and then.

It’s okay to go ahead and glance past this person. Maybe there’s another person back there, typing on his or her phone. A clock in the wall. A computer screen on which some user has left open a web browser. The windows are floor-to-ceiling and huge. To not glance out occasionally would appear foolish.

You’re a person. Just like the person you’re speaking to. Your personhood and all of its glorious inconsistency is what makes this other person so interested in talking to you in the first place. So own it. Your personhood.

Nod. Say something to let this person know you’re still (mostly) present in both mind and body.

Offer a bit of insight. Perhaps share a personal experience or two to go along with whatever the other person was just saying.

Smile, so that you feel the muscles in your cheeks crimp like the muscles in your arms crimp after a long workout.

Try to ask yourself, what drives this person to share this or that thing? What’s on his/her mind? What hurts? What’s making him/her happy?

Ask the other person these questions. You’d be surprised how often the obvious questions elicit the most sincere responses.

When you listen, hone in on the words this person uses. Take quick mental notes on the way they react, whether they glance past you the way you’ve been glancing past them. Do they fidget, or dig their hands into their jacket pockets. Do they remind your of yourself?

Listening is hard. Admit it. Admit how hard it is to get outside your head, your own roiling kaleidoscope of a mind. Admit, too, that it’s worth it to struggle to listen.

Struggle to make sure you speak directly to the point this other person made. Go ahead and use phrases like, “Like you just said, I think _____.” Fill the blank with a thought  that comes to mind when you return to the words the other person said, the words you paid careful attention to a minute ago.

The mind does crazy things. If you feed it, it gives back what’s needed. It can offer up inspiration for a joke, a story to help ease another’s sense of isolation or struggle. If you let it, it’ll probably surprise you, show how truly connected you and this other person really are by experience, insight, the ways you both go about the business of being alive.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Joseph Kane says:

    The act of writing is often about honing the craft of listening, right? But here, we’re not talking about listening. We’re talking about something deeper, that selfish act of receiving someone else’s words. Sometimes I read your posts and I remember your fiction and I hunk your as much of a writer as you are a map maker. You’ve always had a talent for understanding the way people think and translating that into your characters. And this is a bit of how that insight is gained.
    To me, at least. Keep it up.

    1. Thanks, Kane, for showing me what I couldn’t see clearly before in this piece. It does seem like a craft piece, maybe the most personal I’ve written yet.

      Now I’m stumped on what to do next. Tell a story about dancing, maybe?

      We’ll put the internet in its place yet, my friend. Just you wait.

  2. hannahkenway says:

    I think pure listening is in fact the ultimate in unselfish acts – it’s putting away the ego, the subjective I and allowing the speaker to be truly themselves – acceptable. Being able to listen is a remarkable gift.

    I’ve spent some time listening on the end of a phone help line to strangers in dire need of another human to just be with them. The months of training beforehand spoke largely of letting go of preconception, of desire to manipulate outcomes and of judgement. It was fascinating that the callers very often felt their pain had been eased, or a problem solved simply by another human being fully present, being interested in them. It’s a rare thing in this rapid world.

    Thanks for the reminder Patrick.

    1. Hi, Hannah! Good to hear from you again.

      I’ve always wanted to go after the kind of training you describe above, precisely for the reasons you enumerated — namely because it’s so difficult for me to do other than latch onto the parts of another’s story that I can relate to. While that can be useful, connecting like that, sometimes it is like you say, and people simply need to know they’ve been heard. Understood. Relating sometimes gets in the way of understanding, of really trying to see another on his/her own terms, as a distinct, individual person.

      You thanked me for the reminder. Now I think I have to thank you for sharing your experience with the help line, the empathy training you received, and how the training taught you to withhold judgment in order to be present for another person. Thanks for that.

  3. Miriam says:

    Such an important life skill. How often do we listen to others without really taking the words in. And vice versa, sometimes we can tell the person we’re talking to is a million miles away, in their own world. You’re right, it takes effort to really listen and connect with the person we’re with but it’s so worth the effort. Great post Patrick.

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