Have you ever noticed that when you focus your attention on any one sense completely, you become more present? Smelling the dank, minerally moisture in the woods in autumn. Fully experiencing the taste and feel of chocolate in your mouth. Focusing on the sounds of the frogs in a nearby pond.
This is especially true with listening to others. When I listen with my whole self to another person, it’s a portal to presence. Also, listening allows me to reach out of my own experience and join with another person. It relieves me of the illusion that I am actually separated from that person.
If you’ve never had this experience, of releasing your Self through the process of listening, you’re probably not really listening.
Most of the time, this is what happens to people when they are listening: As Person A is speaking, Person B opens the foyer of their brain and allows Person A’s words into a waiting room just inside the door. The words sit awkwardly, trying to keep still while Person B rushes about the brain looking for an appropriate reply that will accomplish one or more of the following:
- Make them sound smart, compassionate, clever, or whatever is desired in the moment
- Allow them to transition the conversation to something they care about, usually their work, their kids, their problems or a fun story about themselves
- Allow them to end the conversation without appearing rude
Once Person A pauses for a socially acceptable response time, Person B then offers up the goods that she gathered while supposedly listening. At that point, the words waiting in Person B’s antechamber are summarily dismissed from her brain.
Then the whole process starts all over again in the other person’s head.
We call this communicating.
Like conflict, listening is one of those words that doesn’t excite most people. It’s drab. It carries a certain weakness. As if it’s the submissive move made by someone who doesn’t have the guts to speak.
Yet I’m pretty sure that if we could just get a little more listening going on we could save the world. I’m talking the end of war, poverty and disease. With this whole antechamber system we've been using we miss out all sorts of good opportunities not only to be more present, but also to gather more information, understand people better, develop compassion, and collaborate. All the actions required to make things happen.
So here’s a game to try: Next time you’re having a conversation with someone, welcome their words all the way into your brain and maybe even your heart. If you start to frantically flip through your internal filing system looking for a response while they’re speaking, stop yourself and sit politely at full attention listening for what is new, compelling, or resonant in what the person is saying. You may want to ask a question to get a better understanding when they stop talking. You get extra points if you take the risk that you will have absolutely nothing to say when they finish speaking except “uh huh.” Let it be OK if this results in complete silence and refrain from calling it “awkward.” Just see if the experience is different and worth repeating.