Do you listen to understand or do you listen to respond? That is a question that I recently asked myself after some disturbing experiences involving my children. No, it wasn’t the children, in this case, that caused my disappointment. It was the experience that I had with their healthcare providers.
I have written on my blog about the difficulties that I had getting a diagnosis of an eating disorder for my son, who nearly died of the illness. At the same time, my teenage daughter was virtually accused of having an eating disorder when she presented with strange symptoms that included weight loss. She had an autoimmune disease, not an eating disorder. I remembered feeling invisible and, frankly, stupid because I didn’t feel that anything I/we said was being seriously considered. I didn’t feel understood.
The doctors heard what they were being told about my son and my daughter. They heard, but very little time was being spent listening to the history and the concerns of the patient. Hearing is not listening though. There are two ways to listen. We can listen to respond (which really could be argued isn’t listening at all) and we can listen to understand. When we listen to respond we are hearing what the person is saying, but we are simultaneously formulating our response, or sometimes our rebuttal, while the person is still talking. Our main goal is “what am I going to say next” and we miss very important details. It is akin to skimming through a book and getting the main idea of the story, but not the details. It reminds me of the Cliff Notes that we all used in high school. We had to write the book report, but didn’t want to read the entire book. To be honest, it generally didn’t go well as we were always discovered. We are equally transparent when we are only listening to respond. We are often so preoccupied in drafting our response and so rushed to get our point out there that we don’t always even have the good manners to let the other person finish. We hurry them along or just plain cut them off. I am sad to say that I have found myself guilty, many times, of the same thing. There have been times when I couldn’t seem to stop myself from interjecting, interrupting, and formulating my next argument or comment without really understanding what the other person was trying to communicate to me.
I wonder at what point we, and even I, stopped listening to understand. Is it related to the fast paced nature of our society? Is it that we feel so pressed for time that we can’t stop and take time to truly listen? Are we forcing our doctors to see so many patients in the course of a day that they simply don’t have the time to spend listening and gathering information as they used to? Or is it that we are just learning to tune each other out? Have we become lazy, in a sense, at putting in the work required to truly listen and perhaps even hear things about ourselves and our behavior that we might not want to hear?
In a world where conflict is becoming the rule, rather than the exception, it would certainly seem that the art of listening is at least fading, if not vanishing altogether. When we listen to respond the speaker is not validated. They are often left feeling unimportant, misunderstood, and not very valued. It can lead to disappointment and even anger. When we do this with those closest to us we can miss very important clues to how they are feeling and it can cause damage to our relationships. Who wants to tell someone how they are feeling when they don’t believe they will be understood?
Listening to understand requires some work, but that work is well worth the effort. When we truly listen to understand, it involves more than just our ears. It means that we are observing body language; we are feeling the “mood” of the speaker in our own body. We are not just skimming for the gist of the conversation, we are hearing, seeing, and feeling the speaker. Innuendo is not missed, unstated feelings are “heard” loud and clear, and we can see, hear, and feel the joy, frustration, anger, laughter, or sadness in the speaker’s words. Questions can be asked for clarification which tells our speaker that he/she is being taken seriously. Listening to understand brings us closer together as we make the speaker feel safe and comfortable. As the listener that closeness in understanding helps us to know whether to laugh and celebrate with the speaker or to hold his or her hand to provide sympathy and comfort.
Listening to understand doesn’t equate to listening to agree as my children so hoped it would. Understanding doesn’t always lend itself to agreement. When my child explained so eloquently that since he could be drafted he should be able to drink alcohol, I understood just fine, but definitely didn’t agree. I was extremely eager to understand the thinking behind what inspired my second son to decide it would be safe and fun to pull his younger brother up to the second story window on a chair attached to a rope. The experiment ended, thank God, with him still in the chair having never left the ground. While I ultimately understood the tortured logic behind this stunt, it certainly didn’t end with agreement and, in fact, it ended with some unwelcome consequences for the big one. While my children and I certainly didn’t agree, we each did feel understood and it did lead to positive future discussions because we each felt that the other was approachable. Being approachable is being open to listening with the intention of understanding, not responding and not pouncing.
When my oldest son told me that he was getting married, there were many things that I could have said at his request for some advice. The best advice that I could give him was to remember that marriage is a partnership and that how we listen is very important. I told him that if he and his future wife remember to listen to each other and any children that they might have with the intention of understanding rather than with the intention of simply responding, they will be able to overcome many obstacles. Feeling understood is a very basic need. We all want to feel that whether we are talking to our parents, our spouse, our children, our doctor, or our friend that the listener wants to understand us. It makes us feel respected, cared for, and loved.