As a former capital E for Extrovert, I believed listening had to do with the timed hand-off between when one person spoke, and the other added to the conversation. In high school, college, and those immature professional years following, when I thought I was a grown-up but still had much growing up to do, I misunderstood what listening was. Then, I thought listening was waiting for a lull before I filled air with my noise, my opinions, myself. It wasn’t completely negative, but it was purely selfish. Oh, I shudder at what a horrid listener I was. And because I didn’t want to miss out on conversations or relationships, I was a bee flitting from one flower to the next, popping in mid-conversation and leaving before the end cap. A busy bee, I flew low enough to take pieces of this story and that story, but high enough to move quickly to the next enticing person. Looking back, I regret stings I’m sure I inflicted with my less-than-par listening skills.
I’ll never forget the day I was walking with a college friend. Past the baseball field we strolled, in deep conversation, when I began looking around for familiar faces to wave at. Forget eye contact with her, who else could I connect with? Hello! Oh hey! Her face. Her neck pulled back and her eyes stabbed with truthful words. You always do this. We’ll be talking, and you interrupt me to start talking to someone else. Are you even listening? She said something else about being rude and not caring, but I wasn’t really listening. Kidding, I’m kidding. I heard it loud and clear. In this case the truth hurt but I needed to hear it.
Some of my most humiliating failures have also been humbling, heart-molding opportunities to grow.
Work and relationships and repetition have taught me that listening is an art. And like fine wine, it’s one that takes practice and patience and the swallowing of pride. Real listening begins with viewing each individual as a blank canvas. Whether the homeless lady at the park, or a childhood friend I bumped into last weekend, every.single.person has a story. It’s how I ask questions that allow them to paint their specific story. What colors, what brushes, how many layers of depth and dimension they are given to create and share and express themselves, depends on the art of listening.
Real listening means waiting for the other person to hang up the phone. To finish their sentence. To give that extra 10 seconds to add a thought or process aloud or bravely utter feelings swirling about. When I worked at hospice, fragile, end-of-life conversations were the norm. I noticed how my social worker friends spoke with family members and how they waited, always waited, for the other person to hang up the phone first before they (in those days) set the receiver in its cradle. What I didn’t know then, was the level of compassion this small detail communicated. It said, I’ll make sure you are safe and have no lingering questions. And when you hang up, I know I’ve heard you until the end. At least for this call.
This is the art of listening. Waiting until the other person has been given freedom to share or think or cry or ask a question with no time limit.
Listening, real listening, is not filling space when another’s sentence drops a period on the end. Listening is noticing what’s underneath, and around, and inside more than the actual words spoken. It’s noticing body language and tone and a trailed off voice. It’s being willing to sit in awkward silence and empty air, because things happen when we give people room to share freely and openly, without a time restraint.
And listening begins with intentional question-asking beyond, How are you?
How is your heart today?
How does that make you feel?
I hear you say “should” often. Tell me about that.
Is that the concern, or is there something else going on underneath?
When do you feel the most alive? The most you? How come?
Along the way, I’ve learned that why statements can put others on the defense. I try with co-workers, or women I speak with, and especially with our boys to begin with, How come? or Help me understand. I don’t like being questioned, so why would someone else?
If listening is an art, what a vibrant, colorful world surrounds if we only we have ears to hear, a world full of unique paintings, broad brush strokes, and deeper still, the sense of being known and heard and that others care, like really care, about wanting to know our inner thoughts.
And isn’t that what real listening is- offering ourselves to another human being and communicating, I want to know about you because your thoughts and opinions and dreams matter?
Let us practice the art of listening today. It starts with an intentional question. I reach for a brush and hand it to you. How is your heart today? You dip it in yellow and speak.
I’m listening, blank canvas. What will your story paint?