The art of listening is rare in our fast-paced world. Yet one of the easiest ways to show we care about a person is to listen to them. All of us want a witness to our lives, someone to tell our stories to.
When it comes to the art of listening, I can think of no better master than my mother. Family, relatives, and friends confide in her because they know she listens. After observing her for years, I realised that there are three simple secrets to her method.
Secret #1: Stop doing everything else
When I walk into my mum’s room and she can see I want to talk, she stops whatever she’s doing. These days, that usually happens to be her latest computer game addiction. No matter how exciting the game, she just clicks the pause button. Then she looks away from the screen and at me. This action alone shows me how much she cares.
Most of us do not take this simple first step of stopping everything else. We figure that we’re efficient enough to multi-task. The truth is that we can’t. The brain can focus on only one thing at a time, and there is no use arguing with the science on this.
And even if we could effectively multi-task (and I repeat: we can’t), we are sending the wrong message. Our actions say, “My email is more important than you. Whether you talk or not, I’m going to keep emailing.” If we really care and want to really listen, we’d turn off our email.
Secret #2: Let the other person do the talking
This sound absurdly simple. Yet most of us constantly interrupt (I’m guilty of this myself). We hear someone’s story, think of a similar incident that happened to us, and interrupt. “Hey the same thing happened to me…” and then turn the spotlight onto ourselves.
When we interrupt, we are actually putting the other person down. Try to remember the last time you were cut off in mid-sentence. How did it feel? I know I feel small, as if what I had to say wasn’t important at all. I also feel embarrassed if there are others present, as they have just witnessed me being casually brushed aside.
The other absurdly simple truth is that when we talk, we can’t listen. The brain can do only one thing at a time, remember? Once we start focusing on our own story, we stop listening to the other person.
The best strategy is not to talk at all. This does not guarantee that we’ll listen, since our attention ofter wanders. But not talking gives us a fighting chance. My mum lets the other person talk until they stop. She nods, says “um”, looks straight at you, sighs sympathetically… but she never ever interrupts.
Secret #3: Take the person’s side
Most of us need a friend, not a judge. When we need to talk, it’s usually because something has happened in our life that makes us feel vulnerable. Confiding in someone is our way of saying “I need your support right now.”
Taking someone’s side doesn’t mean condoning everything they do or feeling exactly the way they do. It means letting the person know you will face the world together, that they are not alone.
One way to take a person’s side is to echo and thereby validate their feelings. For example, “I can see why you were angry”. Another way is to show that you’re in it together, by saying “What shall we do now?”
Mastering the art of listening
Of course, if we’ve mastered the art of listening like my mother has, we wouldn’t need to use words. Somehow people would sense that we’re on their side. Because when we stop everything we’re doing, let the other person talk, and really listen to the hopes and fears inside each person, we would truly be on everyone’s side.