Genuine Listening

British Female GP talking to anxious couple in surgery

The quality of your relationships is largely determined by how well you listen. Pay attention to how you pay attention to those around you. When you listen to someone speaking, are you engrossed or distracted? Are you tracking what’s being said, or busy with your own thoughts, formulating your response?

Genuine listening is a skill that can be cultivated. Especially if you tend to approach conversations with the goal of getting your points across, experiment with the experience of only listening. Be the receiver. Bring your full attention to the words, non-verbal cues, and emotions being communicated. Enter the conversation committed to listen intently, and redirect yourself to the speaker if your mind steers you away. Be willing to step into his shoes, to visit her perspective, to have empathy for his experience. Exhale deeply to help you tolerate whatever emotion might arise in you, especially if you are listening to someone with whom you disagree.

The mind has countless strategies for leading you away from being truly attentive. Watch your internal mental chatter about what is being said. For example, your mind might focus on judging whether the speaker is right or wrong, or deciding whether you agree or disagree with what is being said. As best you can, let this running commentary become background noise and bring your attention back to the act of listening. Ask questions of the speaker to clarify any confusion, and to confirm what you heard. Let your non-verbal behavior and questions show the speaker that you are fully engaged with what s/he is saying.

When it comes time to share your views, feelings, or ideas, spend more time beforehand listening intently to yourself. It is easy to get caught up in your usual talking points, so dig more deeply into what you really think, feel, and want to express.

Communication is a form of connection. Community is enriched when we respectfully exchange our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Sadly, this election season has brought out the worst in our citizenry, as we’ve devolved into a national shouting match. I hope you will listen intently to your conscience, cast your ballot, and then step toward the crucial task of re-establishing our civil discourse. Listen to those with whom you disagree. Stretch your mind and heart to find common ground with your neighbors, colleagues, children, parents, and friends of different political stripes. Genuine listening will offer a better understanding of the complexity of the challenges we face as a nation, and give us the empathy for each other that will enable us to work together constructively toward a brighter future.

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