Will you hurry up and finish so I can talk?

May 30, 2008

This phrase often runs through my mind when I am conversing with people, and I’m sure that I am not the only person that frequently has this mindset. When I enter into a conversation with someone, more times that not, it is because either of us has something that is personally important or interesting that we would like to share with each other: a news story from last night that is particularly important, a tidbit from that book we have been reading, or maybe that new music group that is the best thing since cable internet. It could be anything really.

Sometimes I stop listening to a person a few seconds after they have just started talking. For example, a friend recently came up to me to tell me about this really cool band he had recently started to listen to, but as soon as I heard “cool band” I immediately zoned out, and started raking my brain to come up with an even cooler band that I had recently discovered. When he stopped talking, I tuned back in and started saying “Oh yeah, cool… But I found this really cool band as well. Let me tell you about it.” I’m sure it is obvious how disingenuous I was being, yet I felt that I needed to one up him, and in the process I am sure he became very agitated.

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply

-Stephen Covey

He continues to say that our reasons for listening this way is because we want to be understood. What a novel concept. However, there is not a positive correlation between how much I talk in a conversation, and how much people want to actually listen to me. It is unfair to expect our counterpart to listen with an intent to understand, when we do not do the same for them. This insight can be very powerful in establishing deep, effective relationships. I am not talking about manipulating people, or using special “listening techniques” so I can get what I want. That is dishonest, and frankly flat out wrong, even though it happens on a daily basis in every career field.

Often times I wonder why many of my relationships are shallow, where conversational topics only skim the surface, and the most personal thing I know about someone is what they ate they ate for lunch that day. I now realize that this void is just fallout of daily conversational battles, where each person is yearning to be understood, but is never fulfilled. I have been in numerous situations where a person will start to say something, and before they can finish their first sentence, someone has starting talking about a similar experience, leaving the first person feeling dejected. Covey writes that instead of pretending to listen, or flat out ignoring a person, one should use “empathetic listening”. He continues to delve deeper, writing that empathetic listening includes “listening with the ears, but also more importantly listening with your eyes and with your heart.” When a listener takes this course of action, he/she will begin to really understand the speaker, and climb into their frame of reference. It is at this point in which relationships will deepen, and when people will feel more comfortable opening up and talking about more meaningful topics.

The Bottom Line: Genuinely listen to people, “listen to understand, then to be understood.”