Hey, Shut Your Mouth and Listen already
Eaves-dropping on a conversation between two couples at the mall the other day, I was fascinated by the way all four people were talking past one another. It reminded me of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” song in the 60’s. “People talking without speaking; people hearing without listening.”
I guess many of us have had conversations like that. We listen to someone’s story just long enough to be polite. Then we launch into our own story, which we imagine to be infinitely more interesting than the other persons. We sort of mentally hover while the other person is speaking, thinking of what we are going to say next
Those of us of a certain age are prone to these conversations. Partly because we have had so many life experiences, so many stories, it seems that whatever is being talked about sets off a bell in our brains reminding us of a similar experience in our lives. We are impatient for the person to finish his story so we can get on with ours. Ours is better anyway.
I’ve been working on my listening skills since I’ll be volunteering for Hospice starting next month. The person conducting our training for Hospice is emphatic that we learn to listen, really listen, to patients and family members. “Listening,” she says “is probably the single most important thing we can do for people in grief.” It stands to reason doesn’t it? A woman whose husband is dying of cancer knows that we will not be able to “fix it.” We are neither doctors nor miracle workers. But if we can listen attentively to her story, at least she knows that someone is there for her. Listening can be powerful medicine.
Being a good listener is not as easy as it might seem. In order to concentrate on what another person is saying, you have to put your own ego on hold. This takes some doing. Yes, I know, our conversational skills have been finely honed through the years. Damn, we’re good. But we need to put ourselves in the background for a moment, shut up already! Just listen for a change.
Learning the gentle art of listening is especially important if you are trying to comfort someone who is grieving over the death of a loved one. When you insist on interjecting your story, you have effectively tuned her out. You are not the important one; she is.
Just listen. You don’t have to jump in with a “Yes, that reminds me of how I felt when my little puppy died.” Even worse is dropping a sweet platitude on her. (“Don’t worry. Time is a great healer.” “He’s in a better place” etc.) Just a simple “I’m sorry,” lets her know she has been heard.
Being a good listener is not simply for Hospice volunteers. Since getting involved with Hospice, I’ve noticed the way many of us only half listen to people in ordinary conversation. To my chagrin, I also have become aware of my own habit of jumping in with my story even before the other person has finished telling his. I’m embarrassed to recall the number of times I said “uh,huh” to my wife’s stories while I sat behind the morning newspaper, or the times I interrupted her to solve her problem when all she was looking for was for me to listen.
Well, I’ve made up my mind to be a better listener in the future. If I'd use my ears as much as my mouth, I'd probably learn more, too.