Listen up. Literally.
Updated: Jan 1, 2023
Feel you’re not being heard? Can’t get a word in? A conversation is just a platform for someone else to go on and on and on? You’re not alone. It’s a common problem. Not with texting or writing on forums online. No, that’s more egalitarian, even if it is prone to misinterpretation. But in our conversations, the oral ones. Remember them?
We probably all feel it at times. When I feel I can’t a word in, I'm reminded of the importance of listening — mine as much as the other person's. Naturally, when we can't get a word in, it's frustrating, but I now find I'm pulling back and thinking: am I like this when I get to dominate a conversation? I'm sure this happens for a reason; I think I might be supposed to learn something! So, when I have the floor, I ask: does this mean the other person doesn't have much to say on the topic and they're just listening or could I be just filling all the space and therefore preventing them from joining in? It's very hard to reflect on what's happening in a conversation when you have the whole stage or most of it! I am far more aware when I am taking up more of the stage than I used to be, more aware when I dominate conversations, and hope I’m getting better at ‘giving space’ to the other person. I wasn’t always: if the other person decided not to take up the space, I’d happily fill it!
Sharing the conversation is the ideal. Of course. However, that would require active listening. And in today's five-minutes-to-live world, often a tall ask. I discovered its importance when I learned how to do radio interviews back in the early 1990s. You had to listen. You have your prepared questions, sure, but they're designed to cover all your points and to keep the interview on track. For me, though, the best interviews were the conversations, the to-and-fro, the ones that flowed more or less naturally. I saw it on TV when an interviewer paid close attention to the interviewee because they knew if they listened well there’d be gems — not just the gotcha moments — and they would do followup questions. They knew when to ditch the prepared questions. They were simply paying attention, which is mostly what active listening is. I regularly see and hear interviews these days where the interviewer has missed a key followup or two that would have potentially shed more light on a subject. Were they even listening?
I've learned that if we want to be heard, we'll need to get good at listening well and that means having a decent attention span.
Unfortunately, though, I'm not sure we are paying attention. I sense we spend less time listening and more time trying to interrupt the other person so we can get our chance to speak. Often, we’re only half-listening. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't we listen for a bit until we pick up on a point that we want to comment on or refute and then spend the rest of the time waiting for the other person to pause before we butt in to drop our pearl of wisdom? We’re too busy formulating what we want to say in reply to even notice what they're saying. Mostly we don’t wait for the other person to even finish a few sentences before we jump in; it is often obvious the other person is chomping at the bit to get in. We are so eager to be heard, to get our turn, to give our vitally important perspective that we talk over or interrupt the other person. And if the interrupted were to complain, how often is it met with: “Oh, I thought you’d finished!” Even if we agree with the other person, there’s an urge to butt in and give our version of the explanation or argument. Completely unnecessary, when a nod of agreement would do! I think if we’re honest, we know we do it. I know, I used to be pretty guilty of it, but I think I'm getting better.
A telltale sign is the “Yes, but”. The ‘yes’ is almost superfluous. A ‘yes’ implies agreement. So why not say so? Well, it’s probably because we are not, in fact, in agreement. If the ‘yes’ was genuine, we might hear more of an acknowledgment before the ‘but’.
I got put to the test about 15 years go through a mediation, when, as part of the process to resolve a dispute, I was required to summarise what the other person had said after they'd spoken. We were taking it in turns talking for five minutes and then each person had to summarise the points the other had made. Space was created between turns. It did slow things down. But it worked. That is so rare, it is little more than an aspiration. Who leaves space after someone has finished talking?
That mediation session was a revelation as it turned out. I found I was more caring for the other person, even though I didn’t agree with them. I think we both appreciated that we knew the other person had been listening. It was similar to my introduction to co-counselling back in the mid-1980s, when people would meet and talk uninterrupted for an agreed length of time and then swap. When we know we have an explicit period of time and we know we're not going to be interrupted, it's nothing short of magic.
The challenge is to catch ourselves not listening to what the other person is saying and snap ourselves out of it. The problem is when we don’t listen well we may miss any number of points. It is ultimately disrespectful and we don't like it when it happens to us. And embarrassing when the other person notices it!
There’s an exercise you can do with a number of people: try ten or more, in a circle. The person at any point in the circle whispers a short message to the person to their left, which is then whispered to the person on their left and so on to the last person, who is asked to either whisper the message to the originator or speak it out loud. The test is to see if it’s the same as what the person at the start began with. Try it.
The thing is, if we can’t actively listen, how can we have genuine conversations? Might the problem be we all want our 15 minutes of fame . . . continuously? And/or 'I know more than you do'? And/or we've told ourselves we can’t possibly be wrong — and we are not dropping out of ego long enough to consider another perspective? And/or we’re happy in our self-fulfilling bubble? Don't rock my boat!
Maybe none of the above. Maybe we think the other person is simply 'taking too long' to make their point, or they're not good at communicating or they flip from point to point in an argument. If you think that, then maybe it's time to have that confronting conversation. Which might mean you both decide to do better; it is always good to share what is not working for us, even if it's challenging. Or, you stop talking with that person. If it is the latter, at least you're being honest.
That said, imagine if conversations had pauses in them and people paid attention. It’s not too much a stretch to suggest we’d have a much better world. I’m even crazy enough to think war might not be possible.
If we want to be heard, we'll need to get good at listening and that means having a decent attention span.