It was all going so well. My partner was talking to me, I was listening, or so I thought, and then she gave me that look and said, “You’re not listening”.
On reflection, she had a point. Whilst she was talking, my thoughts were everywhere, the ‘mad’ driver on my way home, what are we having for dinner, and even dreaming about our holiday in two weeks time. So maybe I wasn’t listening. Next time, I said to myself, I will do better.
I did not have to wait too long. A couple of days later, she started talking to me again. This time I was prepared; I was going to really listen. And I did. If she asked me, I would be able to tell her exactly what she had said, word for word. “You’re not listening!” “Well let me tell you I was listening”, I said defensively. I proceeded to repeat, word for word, what she had just shared. Smiling quietly to myself I waited for her response.
“You’re still not listening”. Before I could say, but, but, what, she had gone.
What is going on?
I regard my partner as bright, intelligent and a good communicator, so for her to tell me I was STILL not listening, in spite of the fact that I could tell her exactly what she had said, maybe there is something else I am missing.
So I looked up the difference between hearing and listening, as after all, I was hearing perfectly well. I was amazed at the difference.
Hearing is passive; we don’t have to do anything. Unless we are audibly impaired, we can all hear. In a noisy crowded room, deep in conversation with someone, if our name is called out, we will hear it, whereas our conversation partner is unlikely to do so. We also notice our favourite song being played, even though we are in conversation with another. They say hearing is one of the reasons we sleep so badly in unusual places, on an aeroplane, or in a new bedroom.
Listening, on the other hand, is active; we have to intend to listen. For example, I am writing this in a busy coffee shop, there is music playing, the barista is serving customers, there are a number of conversations taking place at the tables around me, and there are people talking, whilst walking in and out. If I focus on what I am writing I do not hear anything. If I stop for a moment and tune into one of the conversations, I can hear them clearly, yet my concentration on my writing suffers. If I tune into the music I stop listening to the conversations.
What I notice when I now deeply listen to the music playing, to the exclusion of all other noises, it feels richer, deeper, more meaningful. I notice that I am fully present with the music and when the song has finished, I feel really connected with the artist and feel moved by the song. Maybe I have not really listened to music like this before.
Maybe I have not listened to my partner, as she has been telling me, maybe all I have been doing is hearing, and not very well at that either. What about my work colleagues!
The next time I get to speak to my partner, things really will be different.
A day or so later, I got my chance.
When she started talking, I put my mobile in my pocket; I turned and faced here, leaned forward and looked into her eyes, and this time listened. She talked and as well as hearing the words, I noticed the tone of her voice, the emotion in the words, the pauses, her facial expression, the way she was breathing, and the movement of her hands. I also noticed what I was feeling in my body, the sensations, the tensions, what I was picking up physiologically. I felt I was connecting with her for the first time.
I did not interrupt; I remained silent, yet all the time remaining present, with my eyes on her. Even when she stopped talking and looked away, when she returned from thinking and looked at me, she realised I was still looking at her, still paying attention.
I noticed that the more I gave her my full attention, the more she relaxed, her breathing slowed, she became calmer, she spoke more fluently. More importantly, she started sharing what really mattered to her, words that I felt came from a far deeper place. When she had been quiet for a while I asked her, “What more?” and she continued to open up, revealing more, going even deeper.
When she had properly finished, she smiled, and warmly said, “Thank you for listening”.
So many things will change for you and your conversation partner, be that at home or in the workplace, when you move from hearing to listening?
How differently you will see and hear each other?