Michael Nichols' book, 'The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships', is a wonderful tool for making listening, which is so often taken for granted and so often misunderstood, a truly effective tool in your hands.
--Why is listening important?--
A basic question, and on the surface, a rather simple one. But too often we are preoccupied with ourselves to hear and give sufficient empathy to the other to really hear what is being said. Most of us think we are better listeners than we in fact are, but of course, most of us assume we are better communicators than we are. Quite often we fall into competitive conversationalism; we are busy thinking about our next statement rather than listening to what is being said.
Being heard also means being taken seriously. It is a true hearing, not a simple reassurance (which may not be warranted or realistic); it helps to shape self-respect, and makes the difference between being accepted and being isolated. This means that the listener must be keyed in to her or his own experience and 'listening agenda', those unspoken and subconscious assumptions being made that fill in the gaps when a conversation is going on.
'There is a big difference between showing interest and being interested.'
--Why don't people listen?--
Listening requires a suspension of self, which is very hard to do. It requires suspending judgement, which is often counter-intuitive. 'But they asked my opinion', might be the reply. Of course they did, because our conversational conventions require that, but in fact they often didn't want an opinion, but rather a listener.
Nichols gives a few examples of this non-listening, which often involve the following phrases:
'That reminds me of the time...' (i.e., 'I can top that...')
'Oh, how awful!' (i.e., 'You poor, helpless thing. Here's another mess you got yourself into')
'Well, if I were you...' (i.e., 'Stop whining and do something')
'Have you hear the one about...?' (i.e., 'Never mind what you were saying, because it's boring...')
We all have unspoken, and often unperceived, prejudices about what people should think, feel, and be. This comes from family and community influences, and makes us predisposed to hear or not to hear certain things.
Of course, some don't hear things because of emotionality. This is particularly relevant if what is being said is in any way critical or in the nature of a reproof. Even if we've asked for it, we don't want to hear it. Often, emotions only seem irrelevnat or inappropriate if we don't know the memory of the listener. Often, our tone of voice dictates whether or not there will be a hearing of what we say--and this is difficult, because we often hear what we feel like, not what we sound like. 'The universal human vulnerability to criticism is related to the universal yearning for love and approval.'
--Being heard and learning to listen--
Nichols concludes with two sections on useful applications of the ideas presented on how we fail to hear and communicate. These are put in family, workplace, and social contexts, and Nichols shows how to diffuse emotionality and concentrate more of the other person to facilitate communication. However, 'Better listening doesn't start with a set of techniques. It starts with making a sincere effort to pay attention to what's going on in your conversational partner's private world of experience.'
For understanding, you must show you understand and appreciate what is being said. Also, one must not be afraid of silence, for it is into the silence that the truth can be spoken. Of course, this must be an 'active silence', appropriate in length, and involve other indications (physical cues, eye contact, etc.) that active listening is still going on. 'The reason we care so much about being listened to is that we never outgrow our need to communicate what it feels like to live in our separate, private worlds of experience. Unfortunately, there is no parallel need to be the one who listens. Maybe that's why listening sometimes seems to be in short supply. Listening isn't a need we have; it's a gift we give.'