“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” — Simone Weil (1909-43)
Putting ourselves on mute when others talk is sound advice to follow during our conversations. This tactic ensures hearing, defined as the “the faculty or sense by which sound is perceived.” But how about listening, which means “to pay attention to sound; to hear something with thoughtful attention.” We shouldn’t just hear people, especially when they’re discussing serious issues, situations or feelings; we must listen to them. But how do we practice active listening?
- Just as we’ve learned multitasking is bad for our brain health so is it for our listening ability: focus, focus, focus.
- Asking questions prolongs discussions. Think grammatically: a question mark advances a topic better than a period.
- Use nonverbal communication (e.g., smiles, wide eyes, gasps, nods) to show attentiveness.
- Maintain eye contact with the other person, to indicate our ‘presence’ in the conversation.
- Hold off on sharing a similar story or experience. Put simply: wait our turn, which may not occur until a later day.
- Decades ago a friend implanted in my mind a phrase that helps me to listen (when I heed it): don’t go into ‘fix-it’ mode. Often a person wants to talk or vent; our role is to tune in or commiserate, not to counsel a solution.
While the above tips apply to personal conversations, we may also engage in political ones, sometimes in a context of polarization. Dr. Sandro Galeo writes, in his weighty argument about the value of listening outside our bubbles: “We should not engage with people we disagree with from a place of condescension, and we should not listen to them merely to wait for them to stop speaking so we can communicate our predetermined message. Rather, we should engage at a human level, with the good-faith assumption that there may even be something we can learn from those whose views strike us as self-evidently wrong. It is only by engaging in this spirit that we can hope to overcome sectarianism and advance a healthier world.”
When replaying conversations from the past, I admit to not always giving my full consideration to the person speaking. Although I don’t normally make NY’s resolutions, I’ve decided on one for 2022: to listen up. •
P.S. Pandemic restrictions have caused us to rely on technology for communicating with friends, family and colleagues. Do you think Zoom and other apps have improved or worsened our listening skills?
P.P.S. Do you think a good listener and a good conversationalist can coexist?