Listen to Learn and Learn to Listen
True listening is not always easy. It is a skill we develop. In this era of technological expertise and emotional unavailability, all too often there is more speaking than listening. We are not really conversing but merely exchanging gestures. For a genuine dialogue to occur, speaking and listening must both play leading roles. Conversation is a dance and play between two human minds, which naturally creates harmony. Therefore, having a good conversation is an art that benefits ourselves and others.
In the art of conversation, two people are equal partners. When one is speaking, one is more active; when one is listening, one is more receptive. A conversation where someone is speaking, but no one is listening fosters disharmony and dishonesty, within the conversation and within the relationship. Thus, in order for the conversation to be healthy and productive and to grow, both participants need to take turns listening.
One reason we have conversations is that often we just need someone to hear what we have to say. However, in a world where we are constantly encouraged to indulge and gratify our own desires, it can be difficult to find someone to listen, because that means focusing on the other person rather than on ourselves. Unfortunately, we are creating a culture in which everyone is expressing themselves but no one is listening.
We have to hire people to listen to us. Coaches and therapists are trained in the art of listening, providing a space in which we can simply express ourselves. Their listening enables our stress, fear, worries, and insecurities to be revealed and liberated. In the same way, by learning to listen we can digest, contemplate, and engage in the thoughts of another, understanding and responding to their emotional state.
As in any other activity, it helps to practice listening. The best way to listen is to hold our seat. The exchange of power has been handed over to the speaker, who is now directing the conversation’s mood and energy. If we feel insecure about our role as the listener, we may feel intimidated and anxious, inadvertently or compulsively interrupting the conversation in order to regain control. Holding our seat is a process of engagement and self-assurance. Listening often requires a greater sense of calm and self-assurance than talking. A good listener is not threatened by another taking the reins of power.
When we are unable to listen, a number of things are occurring. The first is related to time: we are unable to be in the present moment, for listening requires us to be on the spot. Therefore, listening is clearly a practice of mindfulness. It is engagement or attentiveness. Listening also requires us to feel and to care and helps us balance our relationship with others. When we don’t care and are inattentive, and thus cannot hear, our mind is focused on ourselves. We care more about our thoughts than what the speaker is saying. When we are unable to listen, we lose connectivity. Daydreaming while someone else is speaking is a subtle form of rudeness.
In engaging in conversation, our attention needs to be on the other person, with our ear faculty focused on their speech. This focus needs to be specific, so we are not simultaneously paying attention to music, other conversations, birds chirping, or dogs barking. In order for this focus to occur, we have to relax. When we do not listen well, there is often tension in the body, which is related to aggression. Something about the other person is preventing us from truly listening. Perhaps we do not fully trust them or we do not really respect them.
True listening, like the art of conversation, is a skill we develop. We need to come out of our own insecurities and self-absorption, which takes confidence and relaxation. We need to care about another person, which takes maturity. Some dialogues are painful or disturbing, so listening also takes compassion and patience. Even though listening is a receptive act, it is a dynamic endeavor that allows us to grow and learn.
Dr. Howard Peiper, N.D., nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, has written popular books on nutrition and natural health.
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