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The Art of Listening

Aug 17, 2007
Life is difficult. Now, most people know that, at least those who have managed to grow up and turn into responsible adults. But on the other hand there seem to be a lot of tools and techniques for those who, in spite of that fundamental truth, have not given up to try and ease the burden on themselves and on others.

There is a lot of suffering around us. And it doesnīt seem to depend on the country which I happen to visit, or the type of people I meet. It doesnīt seem to depend on the affluence or the poverty which prevails in this or that society. It doesnīt depend on the time of day, nor on the weather. It just seems to be there.

We can see it on the faces of people in a crowd. I'm not referring to people who have come together for a common purpose, like celebrating a saints day or demonstrating against the government. Those people wear almost identical expressions, because they are sharing identical thoughts and objectives.

I mean people on the street, at the bus stop, waiting in line in the supermarket. People walking or traveling home from work, waiting for the traffic light to turn green.

There is no common cause that connects them, makes them really feel 'part of the crowd'. They are essentially alone, sharing time and space with other humans that happen to be in the same place. And there is very little social interaction.

Talking to someone almost always means that you have an agenda, that you want something . You might want to know of that person where the next public telephone booth is because you forgot to recharge your cellphone. You might want to convince your spouse that tonight it would be so much better to stay home instead of going to the movies. That telephone call to your brother, where you say virtually nothing but show him by placing that call that you are sorry for what happened last night.

And, having an agenda, we control our body language, which includes our facial expression, tone of voice, the way we gesture, etc. We are, in a very real sense, acting, wanting to make the right impression.

People in an anonymous crowd donīt do that. They donīt wear a mask, here 'what you see is what you get'. They donīt feel observed, therefore there seems to be no need to control the facial expression. And it can be a little bit frightening when you look long and close enough, canīt it?

We all carry our burden, some with more, some with less grace. We all, without exception, have our problems. I might be suffering from my overweight, my apparent inability to control my food intake. Now, even though that's a condition shared by millions around the globe, it still is my own, personal problem, and I feel alone with it. Nobody really understands me.

The same is true for the mother whose 16-year-old son has taken up smoking. That happens to a lot of mothers, true, but she still feels alone with that situation because nobody really understands her.

That's because nobody really listens to her.

There is a lot of material available today on how to develop and improve our communication skills. They are mostly written for business people who want to get on with their clients, corporate executives who want to communicate corporate values to the rank and file of their companies, politicians who want to win an election. Parents trying to get through to their children, teachers wanting to influence their students, and a lot more. But all of them begin with the most basic, and the most difficult skill: to really listen.

To really listen requieres strength of character. I must be willing to invest the time and put aside my own worries and preoccupations, and my own agenda. I must, in a very essential sense, be willing to forget myself.

A person with a problem is emotionally charged. Imagine that person to be standing in a container where rational thought and feelings share the same space. The more emotionally charged he is, the less space for clear and coherent thought there is. That person could literally be drowning in his problems.

But there is a sure way of lowering those emotional levels. And that is making him feel really understood.

When feeling really understood some magic walves open at the bottom of that container and all that negative feeling is allowed to leave, making space for rational thought. That's when that person can actually see the solution to his problems, which has, for all we know, been lying in front of his eyes but were covered by all those layers of worry, frustration and feelings of impotence.

What happens usually when I see that somebody is emotionally charged? Let's say a colleague of mine is in danger of being laid off by the company? I, being basically a person of good will, want to help him and invite him to talk about it.

The moment he starts talking I search my own memory files to see wether something similar has happened to me in the past, wether I have some experience level as far as this situation is concerned. Once I find a match in my files it appears to me that I already know what he's talking about. And, wanting to be of help, I start to shower that person with good advise, all the things that I did in that situation, and how I solved the problem.

That's called an autobiographical response, and it's of very limited use. Because that person feels that he has been relegated to the sidelines while I talk about me and my problems, present or past. And if he would have been ready to listen for advise, he would have asked for it. Now it just seems like an imposition.

Now remember, I wanted to help that person, and the only thing I achieved is to make sure that he wonīt come back to me again if another problem arises. I lost an excellent opportunity to diminish suffering and to make a friend.

The only technique that works, the highest level of listening, is called emphatic listening. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy means that Iīm available with all my skills and experience. That's relatively easy.

Empathy means that I forget all that and put myself in the position of that other person, slip (in a figurative sense, obviously) into his shoes. And that's mighty difficult. But it's the only way I can really understand (or at least come very close to understanding) of whatīs going on inside that person. If I don't, at least initially, eperience his reality and his experience level, I may never know whatīs bothering him.

All our realities are interwoven with emotions, they are the agent that give spice (or pain) to our lifes. There is no point in understanding the objective problem of that person if I donīt find out whatīs it doing to him emotionally, because that's where he really feels it, thatīs where reality is really happening to him. And I have to be willing to suffer with him, at least temporarily.

So how does this work practically? Remember my colleague who is in danger of being laid off by the company? Once he starts talking, the most vital question I can ask is: "And how does that make you feel?"

You see, he might actually be happy about getting fired. He is tired of the stress around here, and he has a better offer from a bigger company lying in his drawer. Whatīs really bothering him is that his kids will have to go to a different school, because the new company is in a city 500 miles from here, and his boyīs grades had been slipping recently.

I wouldn't have stood a chance of getting to know all this if I told him what I had done in a similar situation. It's important to ask for and give feedback. I might not be reading him correctly, and I might ask him, for example "Does that make you feel nervous" so that he on the one hand can correct me if necessary and, on the other, more importantly, feels that I'm really trying to understand him on an emotional level.

And the miracle is ready to happen. Since he feels himself really understood, his emotional level drops and he might see a possible solution for the problem, because he is back on a rational plane.

A lot of suffering in this world exists precisely because people feel alone, because there is nobody to talk to, and those who listen do it very often for their own ends. Many people around the world are literally constipated with negative feelings.

And, let's be honest, isnīt it a relief sometimes to forget our own worries? Thatīs the pay-off we get when trying to help somebody by really listening to him. Our problems seem to acquiere a new perspective. It's not all that bad, after all.
About the Author
Georg Grey is a German communications expert and language teacher in Mexico.He offers his tutorial services over the Internet. His lessons include general communications techniques applicable in any language. You find him here http://www.greyasociados.com/distant_learning.html
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