Are You Listening?

I am not by nature a good listener. I mean well. I start out with good intentions. As you begin speaking, my brain is pleading with me: “Wait… wait… wait. Don’t talk yet. Listen!” And I do… for a minute or two. It is not that I don’t want to hear what you say; I am genuinely interested in you. Sometimes I am just easily distracted. But more often, it is that I quickly know just what you are going to say, and I either need to prepare to rebuke you (in love, of course) or expound on your thoughts before I agree with you. Either way, I am likely trying to impress you with the depths of my thoughts, and in so doing likely miss the depth of yours.

My listening problem was more evident than ever this past week as I sat on a panel of jurors for a criminal case in a local district court. There was initially much listening to be done. In fact, there was nothing but listening for the first day and a half. And there were few opportunities for distractions: no snacks or phones or doodle pads, not even much room for fidgeting. And during all that time no one was interested in my opinion. (Though there were several times I would have loved to have offered it!) Even when things were unclear or the attorney made a mistake or was confused or confusing, I had no choice but to listen. It was not easy. It was exhausting. But I was intent on listening because I cared and because I had much to learn. And someone’s future was dependent on my close attention to the voices of the witnesses. I knew in this case, the importance of listening.

Stephen R. Covey has been quoted as saying, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” I did not need a best-selling author to share this insight with me. I am one of Covey’s “most people” and apparently I spend most of my time mostly talking to “most people”.

I do know some good listeners and I admire them. They listen to understand. They listen because they care. They are not quick to judge or advise or fix. They are empathetic and encouraging. I seek them out as often as I can.

I even know a few extraordinary listeners. They listen to understand. They listen because they care. They also listen to learn. They seek out and listen to voices they know will challenge their values and beliefs, rather than agree and substantiate their self-proclaimed wisdom. They listen because they are seeking the best thoughts and answers. They listen because they are humble enough to know that they can learn from those with whom they disagree. I am most impressed by these listeners. Theirs are the voices from whom I am eager to hear. But there are too few of them.

Most of us people are so afraid of being wrong about politics or religion or child rearing or whatever it is, that rather than explore -- with curiosity and respect -- the other possibilities, we surround ourselves only with agreeable, like-minded voices. This is increasingly easier to do as blogs and news reports and commentaries present one-sided views with alarming steadfastness – from both ends of the spectrum. Then in the strength that those voices give us, we raise our own voices in loud and insulting shouts at the folks with whom we disagree. And we learn nothing from one another.

We need each other. And we need to hear each other. We have much to learn from one another. People’s futures depend on careful listening to the voices of all the witnesses.