I admit I am not always a good listener and itís generally not even because Iím not interested or waiting for my turn to talk. Sometimes I do get impatient when stories take too long to tell and the speaker looses my attention, but even that is not the main reason I do not listen well. Itís more about having a quick emotional reaction to the conversation or subject matter and then allowing my mind to race off with comparisons, solutions or defenses. Inevitably the message triggers some idea or relationship in my own experience and soon I am absorbed in thoughts that have blocked out the other personís words. I can do this while still appearing to be a participant in the conversation. I have developed the appearance of being a good listener.
As a parent and a stepparent, I have missed some subtle and not so subtle nuances and a few telling moments, but more importantly, I have been guilty of not being fully present in a relationship that means so much to me.
In a time when young people are more apt to be sitting in front of a television or a computer than engaging in conversation with a parent, it is even more essential for us to hear them when they do. Over time, the lack of conversation erodes the best of relationships and individuals in the same household can quickly become strangers.
The basis of language is the freedom to talk about what matters and to be understood. Busy schedules, too many obligations and the every-day pressures of life can shorten the time and willingness we have to listen. Out of courtesy and friendship we often make ourselves more conversationally available to coworkers and friends than we do our children. Verbal communication is especially significant in stepfamilies where new relationships are being formed. Conversation is key to learning about one another and creating an environment of trust and understanding.
Acknowledging that poor listening habits can easily be interpreted as disrespect or uncaring, I have set out to change the emphasis I place on being a good listener. It seems obvious, but deserves mention that a good listener must forget about themselves and submit to anotherís need for attention. This means setting aside our own agendas and not imposing our own feelings. It also means responding and not reacting. Getting defensive can send a discussion into a downward cycle and trying to change the thinking of another is sure to make a conversation sound like a lecture. Entering a discussion may require facing accusations and conflict but it is possible to have a difference of opinion without blaming or criticizing.
The ability of two individuals to respectfully tell and hear one anotherís side of the story is almost an art-form. Active and sincere listening establishes credibility in a parent. Cutting down on judgment and nagging establishes trust and encourages openness in a child and intimacy in our relationships. Listening well is a powerful life force. Poor listening habits easily account for most misunderstandings, discouragement and feelings of unworthiness.
Lily Tomlin once suggested that we ďlisten with the same intensity we save for talkingĒ.