Listeners Blog


Listen Like a Beginner

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Here at the beginning of a new year — a year that also marks the beginning of a number of new great cycles— we are filled with anticipation of all the possibilities before us. How better to stay open to those possibilities than to listen like a beginner?

Zen philosophy teaches “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” When you let go of the idea that you know everything there is to know about a subject, you can look at it with new eyes. When you let go of the idea that you know everything about another person, you can listen with new ears.

When someone needs a supportive listener to help talk through some important issues, they are not necessarily looking for answers. If you open up your beginner’s ear, you can hear what they are saying without any preconceptions or judgments. If you allow them to find their own truth without imposing your own approach to problem-solving — “If I were you, I’d do this” or “Here’s what you should do” — the results can be incredibly powerful, for both of you.

By talking to someone with a beginner’s ear, you can discover thoughts and solutions that come from your inner being. By listening with a beginner’s ear, you will learn that you don’t know what you don’t know.

And knowing that can be the beginning of wisdom.



What makes listening so powerful?

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I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.
— Ernest Hemingway

One of the great mysteries of this life is why more people don’t listen to each other. There is so much to learn when others share their thoughts and feelings and views of the world. But most of us are too distracted by outside stimuli or our own inner dialog to pay real attention to what other people have to say.

When something is in short supply, it immediately gains in value. In today’s world, people willing to take the time to listen carefully, fully, and non-judgmentally are extremely hard to find. Yet anyone who has received the precious gift of being heard completely will never forget the experience – it is as wonderful as it is rare.

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. 
— Bryant H. McGill

Active, supportive listening is one of the greatest acts of compassion a human being can commit. It is not a random act of kindness. It is focused and intentional and creates a lasting good that perhaps only the speaker can truly understand. It is truly one of the most powerful forces on earth.

Too often we underestimate the power a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
— Leo Buscaglia



Listening List

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At this time of year, it seems everyone wants to look back and pick his or her annual Top 10 list. Movies, books, fashion trends, news stories, scandals – if there’s more than a dozen things in a category, someone somewhere is going to rank the Top 10.

A poll by the MLive Media Group in December 2011 found the most popular New Year’s resolution for 2012 was “to lose weight,” followed by “spend more time with family and friends,” “get out of debt,” and “quit smoking or drinking.” (On New Year’s Day, Time magazine included those among the top ten resolutions most likely to be broken!)

LINK: Top 10 Commonly Broken New Year’s Resolutions 

A goodly percentage of people say they don’t make resolutions but still strive to make improvements in their lives or behavior on an ongoing basis.

Why not resolve to become a better listener in 2013?

Here are our Top 10 suggestions on where to start:

  1. Listen more, talk less.
  2. Be genuinely interested in what the other person is saying.
  3. Don’t interrupt with your own story.
  4. Occasionally repeat or rephrase what you are hearing for the benefit of the speaker.
  5. Think before offering criticism or giving advice.
  6. Be open for what you may elicit – stay with it. Stay open.
  7. Listen to the silence between the words.
  8. Whatever is said, offer sincere thanks for the giver’s willingness to tell you the truth.
  9. Laugh when you see the humor….and you’re pretty sure the other person will too!
  10. Learn what to let go of and when.

What changes would you make to improve your own listening habits?

Let us know in the comments section.



Listen for the spirit of the season

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Have you ever noticed how much of the imagery around Christmas involves listening?

Think about your favorite Christmas songs and carols. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” “Angels We have Heard on High.” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Then there are all those bells ringing merrily and little drummer boys playing and many, many pipers piping.

So why is one of the most moving of all Christmas songs “Silent Night”? It could be that it captures the essence of engaged listening. After we have heard the message – whether it is a proclamation of a new age of peace on earth from a heavenly host or a conversation with someone who needs to talk through their issues – we need some space for reflection to process it and understand its meaning. The act of listening is powerful, and if we allow ourselves to truly hear, it can change us on a deeply spiritual level.

Take some quiet time to yourself this busy holiday season to reflect on the messages you’ve received this past year. Strive for deep understanding to prepare yourself to be an open and supportive listener in the coming new year.



Listening, in respect to disrespect

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When was the last time you had a serious conversation that ended in bad feelings for all parties? What do you remember most – what started the conflict or how it ended? Most of us tend to forget everything but the hurt.

Whether we start out to have a reasonable talk about a minor misunderstanding or a major discussion about a relationship, as soon as one party feels disrespected, meaningful communication is derailed. We may not even realize that we are making the other person feel discounted or diminished, because it is so easy to do, especially around sensitive topics. Then we are left to wonder why the conversation was so frustrating and nonproductive and how we can ever settle anything.

It’s quite possible to misunderstand what your choice of words or tone of voice can convey from another person’s perspective. For example, you may think that approaching a serious subject lightly can help diffuse the tension. But if it sounds like you aren’t taking the topic seriously, doesn’t that mean you are not taking the person seriously either? If someone doesn’t feel they are being taken seriously, there is little reason for them to invest in a conversation; they know they won’t be truly heard.

Developing your listening skills can go a long way in helping resolve conflicts. The first step is to pay attention to how you express yourself. Keep your comments respectful, and ask others to do the same.

If you do hear the conversation getting off track because someone feels disrespected, it’s time to stop and deal with the real issue at hand. Once mutual respect is restored, it will be much easier to resolve whatever conflict started the discussion in the first place. And you will have built a much stronger foundation for really listening to each other in the future.



‘Tis the season to really listen

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The end of the year is a special time of transition. In many cultures, it is important to enter the new year with debts paid and quarrels settled so we can refresh our relationships with others.

Unfortunately, in our modern society, the crazy-busy season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day can be anything but conducive to renewal and reflection. Many people feel overwhelmed by the crush of activities, family obligations and expectations for the “perfect” holiday extravaganza. In fact, the dysfunctional over-the-top holiday dinner with the extended family has become a Hollywood cliché.

Instead of approaching the festivities with dread, why not give the gift of truly listening? If your holidays include a gathering of relatives from far away, find someone you haven’t seen for a while and make time to catch up. Be genuinely interested in what they have been doing, what changes they may have been going through, their plans for the coming year and beyond. Listen more than you speak, and ask questions that show you really care about how the other person is feeling.

The sense of connection such a simple, heart-felt conversation can create may seem like a Christmas miracle, but it’s the sort of experience that we can all share throughout the year by simply listening deeply.



When you have confided in someone, were you ever hurt or disappointed by his or her response?

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Forgiveness gives you back the laughter and the lightness in your life. — Joan Lunden

When we feel we have not been heard, especially if we have tried to talk to someone about our true inner feelings, we can feel frustrated. Sometimes that frustration can develop into anger or resentment directed at those who we think haven’t taken the time to really listen. We wonder if they really care about us at all.

The best cure for those hurt feelings is to find someone who will truly hear us, a supportive listener who will help us talk through our vital issues.

But there is another step that only we can take on our journey to understanding. We must be willing to forgive, to get over the anger and resentment, to let go of the hurt. This may take a fundamental shift in perspective, but it’s worth the effort.

Think about when you felt that someone was not truly listening – maybe it seemed like they were more interested in giving advice than support. Did you catch them at a bad time, when they couldn’t give you the time you needed to fully express yourself? Maybe they thought you were looking for an immediate answer rather than a deeper conversation.

Or maybe they didn’t hear what you were really saying because you weren’t really listening to them. Few of us open important conversations about our feelings directly. If both parties to a conversation don’t start out on the same page, it takes only a few missed verbal cues on either side for the whole effort to end in confusion, misunderstanding and perhaps hurt feelings.

A good listener always asks questions to be sure he or she is understanding what the speaker is saying – both the meaning and the intent. Then the conversation can unfold fully and naturally, and no one will go away unhappy.



Political Damage Control

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The recently concluded election generated way more heat than light, and not just for the candidates in hotly contested races.

If you feel that disagreements over politics may have done serious damage to a relationship with someone you value… someone you really care about as a human being… a friend or family member who just happened to support the other side, now is the time to put aside the heat and search for the light, together.

The election is behind us, so let it go, especially as we prepare for the upcoming winter holidays — a traditional time for reconciliation before we start a new year.

The hardest part may be reaching across the aisle, so to speak. Start a conversation. Let the other person know that you do value your relationship and you would like to find common ground for it to continue. Ask how he or she is feeling, not about the election, but about how things stand between you now.

And when they tell you, listen in an open and respectful manner, without arguing or disagreeing or imposing your own version of events. You have to be willing to hear and accept some hard truths. Ask questions to make sure you understand not only what your friend is saying, but the deeper meaning behind the words. Be willing to share what is useful and true, but let the rest go.

When you can both truly say you approve the message, you can get your relationship back on track.



Getting a conversation unstuck

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When people feel that they haven’t been heard for a long time, they naturally become frustrated. When they finally find someone who will truly listen, they may want to unload all of their pent-up issues at once.

Such venting can be a good start to a self-healing conversation. But a supportive listener will help a speaker move past a simple airing of grievances or obsession with one topic to deeper understanding.

Psychologists tell us the average person has about 50,000 thoughts per day. So why is it so easy to get stuck on just one?

The human psyche is very good at self-preservation. The more important or potentially painful an issue, the more likely we are to try to keep it isolated from the rest of our thoughts. The irony is that the more we try to avoid an issue, the more we tend to think about avoiding it, so it actually grows as a focus of our attention.

A good place to start bringing perspective to an issue that has taken hold of your thoughts is to refocus the conversation onto the emotions surrounding the thoughts.

When you say someone “made me so angry,” what does that really mean? It has less to do with that other person’s actions – or lack of action — and more to do with your own reactions.

A supportive listener will ask questions to help you explore your feelings about what happened, rather than letting you get stuck on repeated retellings of the incident. A really good listener will restate what he or she thinks you are saying, and working together, you can finally come to an authentic knowledge of your thoughts, your feelings, and yourself.



Listening Between the Words

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Good supportive listeners obviously pay attention to what other people say. By truly listening, we allow other people space to express their deeper feelings and find their personal inner truth.

But did you know that more than half of the total impact of a spoken message is nonverbal? Only 7 percent of any message is carried by the words used alone. That leaves nearly 40 percent of the meaning of any conversation to be conveyed vocally – the tone of voice, inflection, pauses, speed of responses, etc.

Supportive ListeningWe all know how this works. You call your friend on the phone, and even though you can’t see the other person, you can tell that there’s something wrong. They sound down, or irritated, or distracted. You can’t see their body language but you can hear it. Even when they say, “Oh, nothing. I’m fine, really.”

Your ear hears the words, but your brain says they don’t match the sounds between the words. Something else is going on, and it’s most likely something important.

This is when a good listener begins to ask questions to help the speaker explore those important underlying issues. The crucial factor is to ask with empathy.

A supportive listener doesn’t call someone out for avoiding a subject. A supportive listener lets the speaker know it’s OK to talk about serious topics, that the listener will hear without judging or confronting. When the speaker feels safe expressing difficult thoughts and feelings, the conversation can progress into areas of enlightenment, for both parties.