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Hey there, are you listening?

Bill Fox

Bill Fox

By Bill Fox/Columnist

We see it all the time now. People are constantly on their cell phones. Look around you as you walk in the mall. Look at people in the food court. Even while with others, they are constantly checking their phones. But what about listening?

Listening is becoming a lost art form. It is increasingly rare to be listened to, or to listen to anyone. And yet, it is potentially the most important thing that you can do today.

Down deep who does not want to be listened to these days? We want to be understood. We want people to know our point of view. We want to tell our stories. We want to influence and change how people are viewing things, and how we are all interacting with each other. If only people would just listen.

Our lives have all been changed by technology and it is important and inevitable.  Children text their parents instead of having a direct conversation. Students “communicate” with people who they might not even recognize. Partners send emails and texts rather than making phone calls. I wonder if the value of human communication is just evolving or if it is going to become a lost art like letter writing?

The older generations, not totally technology savvy, still listen in the face-to-face situations. They offer a sense of trust and compassion to the youth that cannot be found in the massive network of digital generated communication.

In the op-ed piece “The Art of Listening,” Henning Mankell writes about what he has learned from living a “straddled existence, with one foot in African sand and the other in European snow.”

“The simplest way to explain what I’ve learned from my life in Africa is through a parable about why human beings have two ears but only one tongue. Why is this? Probably so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak.  In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It’s a principle that’s been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else. We talk and talk, and we end up frightened by silence.”

Agatha Christie said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” Here are a few quick things to consider as we start down the path of better listening:

Learn from the best. Who is the best listener you know. What is it like to be with that person? What can you learn from that person about listening? What are three to four specific things that person does that makes them such a good listener?

Be curious. Be genuinely interested in understanding the other person’s point-of-view, even if it’s in sharp disagreement with yours.  While someone is talking, think about the deeper meaning of his or her words. What is truly different or interesting about what they’re saying?

Ask better questions. To get better insights into your conversations, improve your questions. Use open-ended questions to allow people to tell stories and open up in their answers. Instead of asking the typical “what’s up?” which leads to the typical mumbled “not much,” instead ask about a specific thing in that person’s life. “How did you end up here?” or “What are you most excited about for the next year?” These types of questions will open up avenues for story and exploration. You’ll end this kind of conversation with much better insight.

Listen more often. Practice makes perfect. As Cal Ripken said: “When I first started listening to audiobooks and podcasts a few years ago, it was truly exhausting. The listening stamina required was more than I had to give. I was only able to listen in 20-minute spurts. Then, over time, the 20 minutes grew to 45, then to listening over a three-hour car ride. Don’t get discouraged. Start small and use audio of people speaking to train your brain to listen better.”