Listening is an art by which we use empathy to reach across the space between us. Passive attention doesn’t work. Not only is listening an active process, it often takes a deliberate effort to suspend our own needs and reactions. To listen well you must hold back what you have to say and control the urge to interrupt or argue. The art of listening requires a submersion of the self and immersion in the other. This is not always easy, especially when we are interested but too concerned with controlling or instructing or reforming the other person to be truly open to their point of view.
Anytime you demonstrate a willingness to listen with a minimum of defensiveness, criticism, or impatience, you are giving the gift of understanding and earning the right to have it reciprocated. Suspending your needs long enough to hear the other person out is part of willing yourself to listen, but suspending your needs is not the same as becoming a non-person. Trying to listen when you’re really not up to it dries up your capacity to empathize. Some listeners are so fearful of exerting their own individuality that they become non-selves, tucked into others, embedded in a safe framework of obligations and duties. These people find it easier to accommodate than to deal with conflict, threats of rejection, arguments, or signs of distress in others. Such compliant people may seem like good listeners but aren’t really listening if they are nothing but a passive receptacle or reluctant sponge. Listening well is often silent but never passive.
Effective communication is not achieved simply by taking turns talking, but requires a concerted effort at mutual understanding. A good way to promote understanding is to take time to restate the other person’s position in your own words, then ask her/him to correct or affirm your understanding of their thoughts and feelings. If you work on this process of explicit feedback and confirmation until the other person has no doubt that you grasped their position, they will feel understood, and they will then be more open to hearing from you. The simple failure to acknowledge what the other person says explains much of the friction in our lives.
Furthermore, you don’t have to be responsible for someone’s feelings to be aware of them, and to acknowledge them. When two people keep restating their own positions without acknowledging what the other is trying to say, the result is dueling points of view. Whether or not someone is really listening only that person truly knows, but, if someone does not feel listened too, he doesn’t feel listened too. We judge whether or not others are listening to us by the signals we see.