“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” —Epictetus (Greek philosopher)
Have you ever found yourself frustrated during a conversation by the other person’s inability to communicate clearly or by what was being said?
If you’re like most of us, this is a familiar scenario that leaves you resigned or confused about your ability to connect with others or to be understood. I’ve been there, and I still find myself there at times, which is in part why I created the Third Ear Conflict Resolution Program™. Based on techniques I use when mediating disputes, the program focuses on listening in new ways so that we really hear the messages that possibly aren’t being communicated effectively. This has nothing to do with trying to change anything about the way another person speaks. Effective communication is as much about listening as it is about speaking clearly, and let’s face it, none of us is a great listener all of the time.
For many years after I first heard the Epictetus quote, I did what I though I was supposed to do. I kept myself from talking and let others do the communicating. Over time, this behavior had me think that I had nothing of value to contribute to a conversation. I stopped contributing and began to fear speaking up, even to protect myself.
Guess what! I still wasn’t really listening. I just wasn’t talking. In fact, I was probably “listening” to my thoughts and living in my own little world inside my head. Despite my best efforts, I was not facilitating effective communication.
In the management training program at United Parcel Service (UPS), I first learned about “active listening”, which gave me permission to speak again in what seemed like very strategic ways. I would still let the other person do more of the talking, but I would occasionally ask questions or repeat portions of what was said. This let them know I heard them, and it granted me the appearance of being a great listener. But I was still more absorbed with my own thoughts. I tended to treat each conversation like a test in which I had to ask the right question or repeat the correct phrases perfectly. I focused so much on an imaginary grading system that I again ended up checking out of the conversation on occasion, even if no one noticed. It was an improvement, but I still wasn’t facilitating the most effective communication.
Ultimately I saw that there is a big difference between listening to someone and listening for them.
Generally, when we listen to someone, we are listening to information and aligning it with information we already have. We hear something about a topic we recognize. Then, we find something we know or believe about the same topic, and we decide whether it aligns with what we think about it. If it doesn’t, we might reject it and make a judgment about the person speaking. We might leave or interrupt the conversation, dismissing the speaker and anyone still listening to him (or her). Admittedly, I was often the person to leave (even if I just left mentally by looking past the speaker to the big-screen TV and ESPN Sports Center behind him). I am aware now that I missed huge opportunities to learn about topics that I don’t fully understand. More importantly, I missed opportunities to know more deeply wonderful people who have views that occasionally challenge mine.
Today, I practice (but am not yet perfect at) listening for the person behind the chatter. I’m not listening in place of the other person. I am listening for who she is and who she wants to be. What does she want from this interaction? Is she nervous and simply doing her best to engage the group so she can participate? Where do her beliefs come from? Does it matter that they are different from mine and come from other sources? Do they make mine any less valuable? Where can I find commonalities so we can explore our differences and similarities more deeply?
It is especially effective to listen for opportunities to create with the other person. Does he mention or hint at his desires, hopes or vision for his life or work? What interests him about this topic? How did he get involved with it? Even if I am not directly interested in this topic, do I know someone who is? Can I participate in it from that angle and offer an introduction?
In short, there is much more we can listen for in a conversation than our own agreement with it. When we listen with an intent to connect and contribute in some way, we begin to build bridges across our differences and realize how beautiful it can be to have access to both worlds. We don’t have to move across the bridge and change our lifestyles. We can visit or host when we want to and when it works for the other(s). Listen for the invitation.