The world needs more listening.
Turn on news or talk shows and you’ll hear people, many with communications credentials, saying lots of words at us and each other, interrupting one another, asking questions and not waiting for complete answers – telling us what we should think.
The same things happen in individual conversations, to use the term loosely, often with the added complication of no nonverbal communication. You can’t see facial expressions or body language, or hear inflections in a text message or email, after all.
Listening is the other side of the communication equation. Without it, communication has not happened.
Listening is not just being quiet. You can be silent and lost in your own to-do list instead of taking in what your coworker is saying.
Listening is not using the time while your spouse is talking to think out what you will say next to win the argument.
Listening is not checking your text messages while your friends are talking. And it certainly is not taking a phone call in the middle of what they’re saying.
Listening is being quiet and engaged. What are their eyes telling you? What are your eyes telling them? Can they tell you’re tracking with what they’re telling you? Listening is tuning in.
Listening means you don’t assume you get it. You ask questions, not to set them up for your argument but to actually learn what they know, what they think, what they feel. And to seek to understand, at least a little bit. Remember, they have a right to their own perspectives on their experiences.
Gay vs. Christian. Republican vs. Democrat. Liberal vs. conservative. Black vs. white. This kind of “us vs. them” thinking has made civil discourse all but extinct.
We may never fully agree, and that’s okay. One can love and disagree. But listening is required. It shows respect and acknowledges common humanity. Shouting sound bites and assuming we know does not solve problems or build community.
Issues are complex, but what could happen if we begin to practice listening in whatever contentious situation we find ourselves? A person who has not been truly heard feels almost invisible. No wonder they feel the need to literally or figuratively shout increasingly shocking things. We have the power to break the cycle and create space for true communication. From there, maybe we can learn to live together as neighbors again.