One of the most important skills for the practice of observing (see blog, Learning to Observe) is listening. The impetus for my dive into love and fear in relationships was researching listening. Listening is simultaneously just one facet of the practice of observing, and—Principle of Complementarity in action!—the foundation of knowing our loves and fears. So, it is understandable that the LovePOEM came to me through learning about listening. Like all of observing, as we listen, we will become aware of parts of ourselves that we have been avoiding confronting. As psychotherapist Tara Brach says, “As we begin to listen, we often come face-to-face with the distasteful tangles, the jealousy or self-consciousness or anger that have been clogging the fountain.”
What is Listening?
Listening is active and demanding. Psychologist and listening researcher Margaret Imhof defines listening as “intentionally attending to what someone wishes to communicate; it includes selecting, organizing, and integrating information.” As Imhof’s definition makes clear, we have to select what we are listening to, then organize the information, and finally integrate it into our understanding. Listening is an innate, but strenuous, activity!
We are not tabula rasas—we are not blank slates when we listen. We have our own frames of reference, developed by our histories, propensities, and socially prescribed roles—our implicit memories (see blog, Implicit and Explicit Knowing). We enter conversations with an objective—whether we realize the objective or not. Studies have shown that participants who are primed to listen with various intentions to a speaker remember different aspects of the speech. When we are in a heightened emotional state, our ability to recall what was said becomes even more slanted, due to our fears. When we are scared, our listening lenses become more distorted. Becoming aware of our listening lenses—observing our listening objectives and assumptions—is a critical first step in being able to listen more fully to the speaker.
Life coach David Clutterbuck states that some of the most common listening objectives are (1) listening while waiting to speak, (2) listening to disagree, (3) listening to understand, (4) listening to help the speaker understand, and (5) listening without intent. When we are listening to speak, we are only-half listening (with great impatience). When we are listening to disagree, we are listening to find fault. When we are listening to speak or to disagree, our fear has overwhelmed our love. When we listen to help ourselves and the speaker understand, as well as without intent, we are listening from a place of love—we may have some fear, but we have embraced our fears with love, so that we can listen with love.
Enhancing our Listening
Most of us are not very good listeners. One of the challenges is that people speak at approximately 125 words per minute, but we can process 400 words per minute—our minds will wander! Our job is to observe this.
Communications and listening researcher James Floyd suggests that our listening is enhanced when we cultivate authenticity, inclusivity, confirmation, and presentness:
Authenticity: this is the honesty in our listening, including our interest in listening and ability to listen at that time. It is more loving to let the other person know if you can’t go on listening at that time and reschedule than to listen half-heartedly—we are all excellent detectors of fake attention.
Inclusivity: when we are inclusive, we are attempting to understand the speaker’s perspective. Inclusivity is a precursor to empathy (see blog, Empathy: What It is and What It Isn’t). Differentiation is the process of honoring another person’s individuality, while not denying ours either. Accepting the validity of someone else’s view does not mean that you need to shift your perspective or agree with their view—it only means that you accept their world view is as true to them as yours is to you.
Confirmation: Confirmation is the act of accepting the speaker as a person of worth, who deserves to speak and be heard; this is synonymous with appreciation-love (see blog, What is Love? Part 2). Sadly, we listen less well to people who we perceive as having low credibility or importance. This is determined by characteristics of the speaker, as well as our biases—including prejudices, stereotypes, and xenophobia.
Presentness: When we are present, we sustain our attention for the speaker. Fortunately, our listening concentration improves with practice! As with authenticity, if we cannot be present beyond a certain point, it is more loving to let the person know our limitations.
Listening to ourselves is a prerequisite for enhancing our listening to others. Speech therapist Rebecca Shafir states, “One of the main reasons we listen so poorly is because our internal noise levels are so turbulent and obtrusive that they mask most of what others are saying.” As we listen to ourselves, it is helpful to note our needs, what sparks our fears, and any other agendas or preoccupations. Listening is a constant dance between noticing ourselves and the speaker.
Observing Our Listening and the Listening that We are Receiving
People are extremely skilled at detecting if they are being listened to fully and with love. As founding listening researcher Ralph Nichols said, “The most basic of human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Listening is the foundational expression of love.
Listening is vital both for our sense of self and for our relationships. Being listened to means that we matter. We may not always realize when our right to be listened to is violated, but it still hurts—especially when it is someone who you expect to care about you. A lack of listening impoverishes relationships. Listening is a meta-communication: it simultaneously communicates how important we deem the message, the speaker, and our relationship with the speaker.
When I first started studying listening, I quickly was aware of how my beloveds were lacking in their listening to me—later, I realized that I had (and still have) a long way to go to be the listener that I wish to be. And, eventually, I came to the realization that I could improve my communication to be more “listenable”—I could make it easier for my beloveds to hear what I wanted to say to them.
The good news is that we can improve our listening skills substantially with practice:
What do you need to hear within yourself so that you can listen with love?
To whom will you offer validation and love by listening to them?
To whom will you listen today?