Listening Is A Risky Business

A few years back, I was trying to get my friend, a woman who had the habit of interrupting conversations, to understand something that was important to me. She agreed she wouldn’t speak until I told her I’d finished what I wanted to say. I must give her credit; she stuck to the rules. About half way through my telling however, she thrust her arm forward and showed me her crossed fingers. I ignored the gesture and went on with my telling. After I’d finished my story, I asked why she crossed her fingers. She replied, “I didn’t want to forget what I wanted to say while I was waiting for you to finish.” My friend is a dear sweet wonderful woman, but she clearly wasn’t listening.

Many advise us to listen, but few tell us “how” to listen. Just hearing the words is not enough. We have to figure out what people mean.

“My children don’t listen to me,” the young mother says. She means, they don’t do what she tells them to do. “I hate you,” says the boy to his father. He means, “I’m out of control, I’m scared, and I don’t want to admit it.” Sometimes, people do say what they mean, but it’s not easy to know when they mean what they say and when they really mean something else. Listening for meaning and communicating understanding are skills that can be learned, but there are risks.

We all want to be understood, but to understand another we have to be open minded, vulnerable, and patient. We have to risk that we might forget what we wanted to say, find out something we don’t want to know, learn something that will challenge our beliefs, change how we feel about an important issue, or admit we’re just plain wrong. It’s safer to cross our fingers and politely wait our turn to talk.

What if we already know what the other person is going to say because we’ve heard it all before and we’re sick of hearing it? Why waste time listening to the same old complaint? Because, listening and letting another know we understand what they mean may turn out to be the faster way to get the other person to move on to something different. When people are not convinced we understand them, they say the same thing over and over again like a broken record. They say it louder, faster, slower, in different words, in sign language, and in behaviors.

It’s important however, to carefully choose when to listen for meaning and communicate that we understand. Some people think if we understand their point of view, of course we’ll agree. What if, after all that listening, we do understand, but we really don't agree? We certainly don’t want to give the false impression that we do agree. If the issue about which we disagree is important and emotionally charged, we could lose a friend or even a mate. On the other hand, discovering how we disagree can be a good thing. Then we can decide what to do about our differences. Friends and family members can agree to disagree even on important issues if they are in a trusting and caring relationship, but only when they understand and respect their differences.

Maybe discovering how you disagree with a significant other is a risk worth taking, and maybe it’s not. If you decide it’s worth the risk, go ahead; try to convince someone you understand what they mean before you tell them what you think. The results will amaze you.

—M. LaCourt

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