By Troy Headrick
I am an educator, a manager, and a writer, which means I use my brain and voice a lot. In my profession and in the virtual world, a space more and more of us increasingly reside in, a great emphasis is placed on having a message and speaking it via websites or social media. To get it out, though, the speaker needs to find an audience that is both willing to hear the message and capable of listening to it.
The world wide web is an overwhelmingly cacophonous place. In response to all the “noise” of the virtual world (to all those voices speaking at and to us), many of us periodically respond by tuning out to a greater or lesser extent. (I actually take vacations away from the internet from time to time, when I feel like I need a break.) When we are online, we may be hearing some of that hubbub, but are we truly listening to any of it? There is certainly an important distinction between hearing and listening, as Leon Berg points out in this great TED Talk.
This blog about the importance of listening and how to be a good listener was mostly inspired by a Skype conversation I had with a friend recently. During that talk, my buddy helped me think about the flaws in my current style of listening.
The friend I’m referring to is an exceptionally thoughtful person who is willing to wait her turn to speak. Almost as soon as we began Skyping, I became aware that I was speaking more than she was, probably because, when conversing with an intelligent and interesting person, I often get excited by the ideas being voiced. As my excitement level increases, my mouth tends to run more. (Of course, because I spend most of my time during this pandemic stuck inside my house, I have few opportunities to speak to people other than those in my immediate household which makes me somewhat excitable and chatty. This tendency is likely to resolve itself once the pandemic is behind us and I have become more social again.)
The important point is that a certain calmness and quietness of mind (and mouth) is needed to listen well. The listener should be careful about planning a response while the other person is still speaking. I found that I was doing this the other day and kept having to remind myself to pay closer attention.
The skilled listener should think about purpose while talking with others. If the point of the conversation is to debate, then one wants to impress or win. If, on the other hand, one simply hopes to exchange ideas, the point of the listening is entirely different. It is impossible to explore or exchange until one has listened carefully and openly, with one’s entire being, to what others have had to say. Such a kind of listening is not driven by ego. Ego asserts itself while speaking and tends to fade away during the act of listening intently.
I noticed my friend doing something that I used to do back when I was in the classroom full time. She would listen to my verbal outpouring and then repeat my ideas back to me in summary form. I’d say blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and she’d say, “So, what I’m hearing is that you…” This technique both demonstrates that the listener is engaged and helps provide clarity. The speaker can then confirm or deny that the listener has heard accurately. Like I said, this works well in a classroom setting. It helps the speaker and the listener gain greater awareness of what one is saying and how the message is being received.
It seems to me that we live in era where speaking is favored over listening. And because many Americans (and others?) put so much value on status and celebrity, everyone wants to “go viral,” to be heard and seen, to “seal the deal.” Everyone is speaking and selling, but how many are listening and buying? As skillful listeners become increasingly rare, they simultaneously become more precious.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.