Cultivate the Art of Listening
TODAY there are all manner of “gaps” between people. There is the “generation gap” between old and young. There are gaps between parents and children, between schoolteachers and their students, between employers and employees and between religious leaders and their flocks.
What are the causes of these gaps? No doubt they are varied and many, but quite likely one of the main ones is failure on the part of both parties to communicate. This, in turn, is largely due to each party’s failing to listen to the other. So often persons are thinking of something else while someone is talking to them, instead of paying attention to what is being said. Husbands are prone to do this, especially if they have talkative wives.
Mastering the art of listening is particularly important for parents, for schoolteachers, for men with responsibility in business and industry, and for all who would counsel persons with emotional problems.
What Is Listening?
Listening means really paying attention with both our mind and our heart, with both our ears and our understanding. “Pay attention” is an appropriate expression because doing so will cost you something. What? Especially time, but also self-interest, for you will have to put the interests of another ahead of your own. In other words, it will require a measure of unselfishness, wisdom on your part, also patience and self-control.
There might be said to be three basic kinds of listening. (1) Listening for information, for facts and figures, for the thought content. (2) Also listening for emotional content, paying attention to the tone of voice and whether the speaker is happy or depressed, pleased or angry, proud or humble. The emotions manifested by the speaker, if noted, will go far toward throwing light on what is said. Empathy is all-important for this kind of listening. And (3) there is also the matter of listening for that which is not said. How can you do that? By noticing what is implied but not stated, what is left unsaid. What seems to be the purpose or motive behind what is said? A person may be inhibited from coming out directly with what is on his mind because of pride or shame, because of being too emotionally involved, or because of his concern not to offend a superior.
Listening to Children
Both parents and schoolteachers have many opportunities to be helpful by listening to their children or pupils. Thus schoolteachers have been told that “one of the most basic and useful competencies for a teacher to acquire is the art of listening.” And a school principal, who at the same time is a mother of four children, stated: “Listening is the most effective tool I’ve found for helping my own children and my students to work out their own problems. You’d be amazed how beautifully they do when given half a chance.”
At times parents are keenly disappointed because of the wayward course taken by one or more of their children. They simply cannot understand it. But if they had been good listeners, they might have heard signals that warned that something was wrong. For example, they might have heard that the words of their children did not match their emotional content, that they were giving merely lip service to their parents’ wishes, that they were covering up a spirit of independence or rebellion.
Listening to children requires patience and tact and, above all, sympathy, empathy and understanding. Is it wise to begin censuring the child immediately if something has gone wrong or if he expresses a wrong sentiment? The result may be that he will hide his feelings, and hidden feelings are more dangerous than those openly expressed, for then the lines of communication are severed.
Listen to the emotion behind the child’s words, whether of joy or anger, delight or defeat, and respond in a sympathetic manner so the child realizes that you are listening. True, this takes time and patience, but wise parents realize that one of the most worthwhile investments of time is in listening to their children.
Do not only be willing to listen, but know how to encourage the child to speak, how to draw him out. Lean forward, give full attention, expect him to speak, encourage him with such expressions as, “Tell me, what’s wrong?” “Yes?” “And then what?” Tune in on his emotional wavelength, as it were. And instead of immediately telling wherein he erred or is mistaken, why not ask questions that will help him to see his mistake without your saying it? By proving yourself a parent that listens with understanding, with awareness, with tact, sensitivity and empathy, you will be providing your child with the right kind of environment for growing up emotionally as a trusting and hopeful person.
Listening to Subordinates
The importance of good listening is also being driven home more and more to those who have positions of oversight in business and industry. It is said that the average executive spends 40 percent of his time in listening and that he absorbs only 30 percent of what he hears. Because of this there are business courses for such men where they are taught the art of listening.
In such courses men are taught to keep their minds on what is being said—a real problem because the mind can think so much faster than the mouth can speak. So they are counseled (1) constantly to analyze what is said; (2) to screen out the irrelevant; (3) to categorize the important points; (4) to weigh what is said against what they themselves know; (5) to look ahead to see where the speaker is going; (6) to listen for what is not said.
In addition to such listening, an executive or other overseer must listen for the emotional overtones. Moreover, because of the relationship between the two, between overseer and subordinate, he must listen carefully for what is implied but not said. He must appreciate that the subordinate may be diffident about coming right out with things. He may be fearful of giving offense, of losing his job, of making matters worse rather than improving them by what he says, and so be hesitant really to say what is on his mind. Here again, by paying attention sympathetically, and then posing tactful questions, an overseer can get at the bottom of the problem and how it may be solved.
Listening to the Disturbed
Regarding those who counsel people with emotional problems, the question was asked: “What single factor in a counselor is most important in helping troubled people?” And what was the answer? “Really paying attention,” that is, with eyes as well as ears. According to one of America’s leading psychiatrists, Dr. Karl Menninger, the benefits of listening are both diagnostic and therapeutic. That is, careful sympathetic listening helps the counselor better to understand the problem, and it has a healing effect on the one needing help.
Listening is stressed so much because the human tendency is to want to talk right from the start. This may be due to self-confidence, to one’s success, position, education or experience. The Bible’s counsel at James 1:19 is very fitting in such cases: “Be swift about hearing, slow about speaking, slow about wrath.”
Underscoring the importance of listening instead of talking on the part of those who would give counsel is the following true-life experience:
It was early one Sunday morning as a Christian minister was putting the final touches on a Bible talk he was to give later that day. Suddenly he was startled when an angry young man burst into his study without knocking and started telling him about his frustrations. He had spent the whole night mulling them over. Instead of encouraging the young man to keep on speaking and, by questions, enabling him to appreciate his problem, the minister at once offered what he felt was appropriate counsel, mostly of a reproving nature. The young man left, but he returned shortly in an enraged state, sprung at the minister, trying to choke him. Fortunately some persons on the floor below heard the commotion, came to find out what it was all about and managed to subdue the young man.
Truly, if you are going to help someone who is disturbed, it is important to listen, and not only that but to get across to the troubled person that you are listening with interest and concern. Draw him out with questions, try to get at specifics by asking “For instance?” and other leading questions and by encouraging him to talk by such expressions as “Yes,” and “uh-huh.” Do not be impatient and, in particular, do not be in a hurry to give reproof. Seemingly the troubled person comes to you for counsel and help, but what he needs just as much or even more is an opportunity to be heard out by a sympathetic listener. This approach has helped even persons who have been in mental institutions and judged by the staffs to be hopelessly insane to come back to soundness of mind.
Most appropriate is the inspired counsel: “For everything there is an appointed time, even a time for every affair under the heavens: . . . a time to keep quiet and a time to speak.” (Eccl. 3:1-7) When a child begs for interest, when a subordinate comes to you with a problem or a report, or when a troubled person comes to you for advice or counsel, have patience, exercise empathy, put yourself in the speaker’s shoes. Keep the words of Ecclesiastes in mind, first “keep quiet” and listen, then “speak.” Listen for information. Listen also for emotional overtones. And listen for what might be implied and yet not explicitly stated. As has been well observed, ‘pay the golden coin of attention graciously and gladly, and dividends will come pouring back to you’ in the satisfaction of having truly done some good.