Friday, July 11, 2014

Shhh . . . Listen

Have you ever felt like you haven't been heard? Perhaps your conversation companion listened to your voice but did not truly hear your words. You can see it happening -- you speak and see the darting and unfocused eyes of your companion as they formulate a reply before listening to what you have said. Their fidgeting and anticipatory starts and stops while you speak prove they are only waiting for a break in the conversational flow so they can talk. They reply with statements that underscore the fact they did not hear half of what you said. You try again, only to be met with the same haphazard response that vaguely qualifies as a reply and more likely begins a new topic of their choosing. It's exhausting. We exit the conversation feeling empty, no more understood than before, and just a little sad over the loss of communication. 

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Stephen Covey

This slow degradation of conversation could easily be blamed on our fast-paced technology-driven society, yet I believe the reason lies elsewhere, at our core. Humans, by nature, focus on the self; others become secondary. Why would our verbal responses be any different than our basic "me first" needs of food and shelter? We can, however, by being intelligent creatures, learn. We can improve. We can grow. Listening -- truly understanding the words of another -- is a method for learning that is ripe with promise. When we speak, we do not learn. Only when we listen do we hear the lessons we need.  

Last Saturday I saw Jackson Browne in concert at a small venue in Springfield, Missouri. This acclaimed singer/songwriter appeared on stage with only one piano and a selection of 23 guitars to accompany him for the night. The solo acoustic evening was only the third stop on his summer tour and may have been a learning experience for the legendary musician. After the first song, Browne mentioned he had no set list for the show and would just play what he felt like playing. After 40 plus years in the business, he's earned that right. Audience members then began shouting requests from the gallery. He graciously replied with beautiful renditions from his catalog of songs. 

As the night continued, the shouts from the audience increased to the point of distraction. Apparently some in the audience believed themselves to be better concert coordinators than Browne himself. Or, they just forgot the intent of a concert is to listen. Brown responded like the consummate entertainer he is, saying he appreciated the requests but he "still had free will and I want to play this one . . . " A charming smile goes a long way in reminding someone of their manners, which he delivered flawlessly. The worst offenders refrained from further shouting and listened. We were all the better for it.

Of course, at some point in a conversation, one has to respond.

This spring I was introduced to the art of Nicola Taylor. Her piece Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams struck me and rendered me speechless. The photograph of an ethereal woman in a vibrant blue dress asleep in a field of purple was both calming and inspiring. Only after reading the short biography on the artist did I discover how much Taylor connected with the title of the piece. She worked for years as a stockbroker in London before she embarked on a sweeping life change to pursue her artistic spirit as a fine arts photographer. Only after listening to the voices of her spirit did she make the leap and relocate to the moors in the north of England. You see, sometimes we even have a hard time listening to ourselves, but when we do, the world cracks open and illuminates us from within. Since then, Taylor's emphatic response to listening to her heart's desire has gifted the world with her inspiring photographs. 

When surrounded by the din of our day-to-day lives, the transition to the quiet of listening may be a move too frightening for some. We have all met people who have no clue what to do with conversational lulls. They simply must keep talking in these moments and propel themselves into nervous chatter. It only fills the air but offers no improvement or benefit.

"Don't speak unless you can improve on the silence." -- R.E. Davis

Listen (c) Rita Herrmann 2014
In the days ahead, I encourage you to try an experiment. When a friend is speaking, quiet your mind from formulating a response and listen -- fully and actively -- to their words. Before speaking, wait two beats and respond to what they said rather than with the subject you want to discuss. Practice listening. Sit. Relax. Breathe. Listen. Only when we listen do we learn.

My thoughts of active listening were punctuated this week by the completion of Greg Hindy's year-long journey in silence. I wrote about Greg in a previous post, and though I only followed the last two months of his 12-month trek, the inspiration was immeasurable. Imagine 365 days without speaking one word and only communicating the essentials by pen and paper. Imagine what you could hear when your voice does not hang in the air. What could you hear? What could you learn? Is understanding waiting on the other side of chatter?

I'll sit in the quiet
and listen to the leaves
The birds will sing to me
and the wind will carry my dreams
My voice will not clutter the landscape
and its beauty will be revealed

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