“Mommy, can you help me with my homework?” She waved her paper in the air, trying to get me to listen, but I wouldn’t have any of it.
This is the question I hear almost every evening between 4 and 6 pm. And this is the child who would much rather allow me the privilege of doing her homework for her rather than doing it herself. I pushed back, saying something like, “I think you can handle it.” Besides, I had dinner to prepare and dishes to put away. I didn’t have time to repeat fourth grade.
But then she pushed her one-page assignment toward me. And I couldn’t help but read it:
You are an “ear doctor.” However, instead of checking people’s hearing, you check how they listen with attention. Today you’re going to check an adult family member’s Listening With Attention Skills. Then, your adult will check yours.
For once she actually needed my help. And I’d proven, in mere seconds, the vast extent of my listening skills.
Shamed as I was by my failure, I pushed my dinner prep to the side. This was her homework. But I also knew listening is important life-work. In spite of my awareness of the importance of listening, I don’t always do it well, at least not with my immediate family. Recently, a family member and I engaged in yet another a “hearty” battle over relational hurts. For thirty minutes we both fought to be heard. The problem is neither of us made it a priority to actually listen to the other. As a result, hurt that could’ve been resolved ended up compounded.
Thus, for this homework assignment, I resolved to become a fourth grader. I pulled a stool up to the kitchen counter, and my daughter and I rehearsed the five necessary practices to becoming the kind of parent, spouse, child, and friend who listens:
Focus on the person’s words. Not your assumptions. Not what you disagree with or their tone or body language. Instead, listen to their actual words. Listen with a goal to understand, not retaliate or deconstruct. One of the biggest mistakes people make—in marriage and other high-stakes conversations—is to listen for what they don’t agree with. That means, you listen, listen, listen until …
BAM! I knew he would go there! I’m done.
It’s usually at this intersection that you interrupt, raise your voice, defend and retaliate. Then, they follow with a similar interruption and raised voice. Instead of playing “private investigator” and searching for discrepancies on which to pounce, focus on the person’s words. Listen. You don’t have to agree or fully understand. You simply need to give the honor of paying attention. Why? Because every life is worthy of dignity and respect.
Don’t interrupt. Yep, I already mentioned that. And I’m mentioning it again. Because it’s that important. And it’s usually a factor when someone doesn’t feel heard. Need help to NOT interrupt? Refer to #1. If you determine to become a person who deeply desires to connect with those around you, you’ll be so busy focusing on their words you won’t have time to interrupt.
Make eye contact. In an age where devices are rarely absent from a person’s hand, eye contact is becoming a rare offering. However, a lack of eye contact communicates a lack of trust and a lack of trustworthiness. It doesn’t mean trying to intimidate the other with a glare. But make eye contact. Look at the person who is speaking to you. Develop enough inner fortitude to stay connected even when the conversation turns uncomfortable. When you do, you communicate value and worth, especially when it’s hard.
Ask questions to find out more. Ah, this is where you and I discover the level of our maturity. Is our desire to escape the conversation as soon as possible? To find a gap in the noise so we can defend ourselves? To squeeze ourselves in to the smallest opening so we can tear down the other person’s experience with our own finely tuned arguments? If so, asking questions will be the last thing we’ll do. However, if our desire is to connect, we’ll end up so immersed in the exchange we’ll want to find out more. At this point, we’re no longer interested in being right or powerful or “on top.” We’re interested in being close. Connected. Together.
Repeat what you heard to show you understand. At the risk of sounding like a therapist, it’s important to repeat or paraphrase what you heard the other person say. “So, I hear you saying you need me to communicate appointments and deadlines sooner, so you’re not scrambling at the last minute. Is that correct?” This is the check-and-balance with the whole listening-skill system. If you’re busy planning your next move and interrupting, you won’t be able to acknowledge or connect with what the other person needs.
Listening is all about relationship. If your goal is to be right, alone, misunderstood, and disconnected and detached from family, friends and colleagues, then disregard these practices. You don’t need them.
However, if you long for deeper connection and the kind of mature, shared community that breathes life into this oft-hard life, then learn how to listen. You won’t always get it right—and neither will those you love. But it’s worth the work of learning how to listen, together.