The hard art of listening

We all have those friends, family members, colleagues. The ones who say “You know you can always talk to me”. Some of them follow this up with the bonus information that they are “a really good listener”.

And so you give it a try. You take them up on their offer – and what happens? You barely get to the end of your first sentence and they jump in immediately with their thoughts, views, opinions, their perceptions of what’s wrong, what you should do, say, think and feel. They are so anxious to provide you with the solution to all your problems that they become another one of them.

They are in fact, terrible listeners. If by chance you do manage to get a few lines out, they are sitting poised, coiled like the proverbial spring, willing you to stop talking so they can launch themselves at you. In this state they have actually ceased listening long ago and are merely waiting impatiently for you to complete your lines so they can fill the air again.

The worst offenders are the ones who use the smallest detail from your tale as a trigger to offload their own issues. And their problems are always bigger than yours, so don’t even try to get things back on track. Just excuse yourself as politely as you can and quickly as you can.

A word to the unwise – shut up. Stop talking. That’s the very least you can do. People that need to talk very often don’t always express themselves well. The running commentary in someone’s head that they have played over and over will habitually come out blurted, in a clumsy fashion and be as much of a shock to the person as anyone listening. But – it loses its power when said out loud.  Encouraging looks amid silence help to relax them into the sensation of talking out loud. Some call it active listening.

By getting used to actually giving voice to the things that have been bothering them, those tensions can be seen for what they are. A downward dialogue that deals despondency, but which shrinks – and with a bit of luck – evaporates on the outside. Maybe not first time; walls of sufferance are built over time and will not always be blown away instantly.

Very often too, the first statement is testing the water. Most people will not dive in with the biggest and baddest millstone they are carrying. A tentative opening line that is crushed by the oncoming juggernaut of a non-listener will guarantee the end of that discourse. Learning to listen well involves patience and self-restraint. If you really care about the person, that’s something you will rise to.

Listening requires you to stop processing incoming information with a view to responding. You don’t need to solve the problem for them. You don’t need to answer straight away. You often don’t need to answer at all. Therapies involving animals (dogs and cats typically) where people offload and what they get back is unrivalled attention a lick and waggy tail – do wonders. I don’t recommend people do this unless you know the other person very well…

I was on a train on the way back from London recently and overheard a valiant attempt at a pep talk. (I don’t habitually listen in to other people’s conversations, but when they are conducted loud enough for the whole carriage to hear, they’re fair game).

The lady on the receiving end of the pep talk was on the retreat almost from the get-go. She was reduced to ‘Yeah…yeah…uh-huh…oh yeah’ by the torrent of life changing observations from her companion. Eventually, her well-meaning friend was surprised she was getting off before their usual stop. The hastily concocted reason was grocery shopping. As she stepped off the friend said “Call me – call me – you promise?” It was an order, not a request.

I’m pretty sure that most times, the rubbish listeners are good people with good intentions. And they’d probably be affronted by any suggestion they were doing anything but trying to help. But they’re not helping. They really. Are. Not.

So if your pal is a bad listener, I guess you have three choices:

  1. Find a better listener to be your listening pal
  2. Tell your erstwhile pal to give you a good listening to for a change
  3. Do (1) but keep some minor titbits for your bad listening pal to chew over. After all, you don’t want to lose a friend completely, do you?

This blog was written in beautiful isolation. Now back to the maddening crowd…

Your servant

MC

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