I talk a lot, and as you see in my blog, I appear unafraid to talk about deep and dark. But I struggle with the fear when talking to a person.
I am not afraid of the people who judge me and spew hate. I’m expecting. I’m prepared. I’m hardy.
I am unsafe only in front of the well-intended: the ones who think they are good listeners.
I run on a lot, but, in the recent past, I have not got to the third sentence of any of my stories – even the ones they asked about.
“What did you do this summer?”
“I did a great big bike ride. I cycled 9 days and raised $9000 for Cystic Fibrosis.”
“I have a friend who rides a lot. She does ironman and is always cycling. I’m pretty sure she did coast-to-coast.”
“How was your hockey game?”
“It turned out to be lower calibre than what I normally play, so I tried to set up others and still had a great time.”
“You know who’s great at that? Christine. My friend Christine used to show up at my games and…”
I asked a few of these people. They universally told me “I’m offering a similar story to try to connect with you” and did not ask me “Since you are asking me this, I’m guessing it didn’t have the intended effect?” There are two “unsafe”s in here: 1. They again didn’t listen to me, and 2. They think they are a good listener and is not open to change.
We all have to be open to change if we encourage the vulnerable “Let’s Talk.” Are you a good listener? Or do you just think you are?
Let me ask you a question. Imagine what a “good listener” looks and sounds like. . . . . . . Do you have a clear, detailed, tangible picture? Do you look like that for 1 to 2 hours at a time without breaking into a “Focus on the positive” dismisser, an “I have a friend with a similar story” interrupter, or a “This is what you need to do” solution provider? When you offer a change of topic saying “You need a break from thinking about this,” did your friend set that timeline, or did you?
Let me ask you another question. When should a good-listener-y exercised? When a friend was delivered a devastating news, when someone is crying, when someone “needs to talk”?
Here is my proposal as our first steps to becoming a good listener.
1. Be a good listener always. Your friend wants to tell you about the sandwich she had for lunch. Your friend wants to tell you about the goal he scored in the hockey game. Be a good listener always so that, when they need an ear, they already know you are a good listener. If you think it’s painful to try on several pairs of jeans till you find the one it fits, imagine how exhausting and heartbreaking to do that with several self-acclaimed good listeners when they’re already hurting.
2. Consider (for now) that being a good listener is about not talking at all. There are many “active listening” skills you can read about. Unless you’re certain you can execute it, forget it for now. My challenge to you is: Only respond using the following:
a. Sounds (“Uh huh” “Hmmm” “Ahhhh” “Aww” “GRR”)
b. “Oh that sounds ___ [great, sucky, terrible].”
No, it’s not your turn just because they paused. No, silence does not need to be filled. No, you do not exercise your right to free speech. No, you do not have the perfect solution.
Yes, saying the right thing at the right timing and situation is important. But the trigger-happy, “MY TURN! MY TURN!” way they are being offered today is not any of these things.
People don’t listen to you nearly as well as they listen for their turn to speak.
You think I’m wrong? Next time someone is telling you something, try responding only in variations of “sounds”: “Uh huh. Uh huh. Ahhhhh. Awww. Hmmm. Uh huh. MmmmmHmm.” And if they ask you a question like “What do you think?,” don’t start a story or offer a solution but turn it back on them, e.g. “I think what you’re going through is really rough.” You will notice yourself distracted every 10 seconds by a “similar story,” solution, suggestion, or advice you’re going to share the next time your friend takes a breath. It’s excruciating when your friend pauses in thoughts because, look, there is this big window for you to start your similar story, solution, suggestion, or advice! When your friend comes back from her thoughts and continue her story, you are only half listening because you’re thinking about the story you were going to tell, how the opportunity was missed, how justified it would have been to say that to your friend, and how helpful your friend would certainly have found what you had to say.
And, an hour later, your friend would turn to you and look straight at you with this calm surprise in their eyes and say “Thank you for listening!” like this is the first time someone really listened to them.
The thing is – it possibly is.
NB: Of course there are situations where you shouldn’t try my challenge, e.g. someone asks you to call 911 because they’re feeling suicidal, and my challenge is to proposed as an experiment in hopes for all of us to become aware of how we could become a better listener – it’s not a listening style to be exercised on a regular basis.