Sunday, July 18, 2010

Listen and Change the World

I have a fun little experiment for you if you'd like to play along. Today, as you go through your day, notice the number of people who really listen to you. Then try to observe yourself, and see how often you are really listening to other people whose lives you touch today. I have this hypothesis that if everybody had at least one real listener in their life, we could radically change the world for the better. Every person has their story to tell, and it opens up heartfelt channels of communication to be one of these valuable souls.

Ever notice how people many times aren't listening? Sometimes people stop talking, but they aren't hearing the other person. They could be preparing a response or a rebuttal, or figuring how to get you to finish. At times, people are making a mental list of other things they want or have to do after interacting with you. Perhaps you can feel it. The listener may want to turn the topic back to themselves.

Listening is a powerful tool to make the world a better place. Gandhi wrote, "the more efficient a force is, the more silent and the more subtle it is. Love is the subtlest force in the world". Giving your time to slow down, and take the time to listen, is one of the best ways to love someone in your life. My elderly grandmother lives nearby, and I notice how the very best thing you can do for someone in their 90's is to sit and listen to their stories about long ago, so that they can recall and relive them. You don't have to be older to want this. People all across the lifespan value a good listener.

You can feel yourself melt when you experience the gift of someone truly listening from the heart, for understanding. It feels completely different than someone listening to you with an agenda of their own. I have had children and teens tell me they long for a parent to provide this kind of loving, non-judgemental listening. I have had adults, both men and women, tell me they started affairs to get this kind of attention when they couldn't figure out how to get it from their partner.

When I worked for the Counseling department at St. Joseph Hospital in the late 1980s before I went into private practice, I was a part of a team of health care managers who trained the staff in 'The Healing Touch'. That program focused on the high-touch interpersonal skills of listening, slowing down, and making eye contact, among other skills. Studies show hospital patients care about whether health care providers use these people skills. The people in your life, at work, at home, and in your daily interactions care, too!

Here are a few tips on active listening:

1.Make eye contact.

2.Sit down if your talker is.

3.Summarize what you hear them say in your own words when they stop talking.

4.Ask questions to deepen your understanding and make sure you get it. Listen to the answers.

5.Thank them for telling you, epecially if it is something it was hard for them to be honest about. In truly intimate relationships, I generally want to encourage each person to build a sacred trust that there isn't anything you can't talk about with each other. Try not to be defensive, or the person speaking will shut down.

6.Try to empathize with what they might be feeling. Take a guess at what that feeling might be. Phrase it tenatively, and they will adjust it if you are off a bit.

7.Don't interrupt or storytell about you. It feels horrible and dismissive.

8.Don't be distracted as you listen. It cheapens the gift.

9. Don't multi-task if possible. If you are really distracted, say so, and ask if you can meet up with that person in a few minutes, when you can give them your undivided attention. Then, make it happen!

10.Set up a separate time to have them give you their complete and undivided attention as your listener if it is appropriate.

Truly listening is a skill that is difficult to master. We can each always improve on our ability to give this wonderful connecting gift to others. It costs nothing, but few things mean more in life. Together, we can change the world; one life and one listener at a time. As Mother Teresa said,"let us not use bombs and guns to overcome the world. Let us use love and compassion". Listening can be a powerful tool to revolutionize your relationships and make your most effective impact. All of us can learn to do it well.

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