Much has been written about the “Art of Listening.” We know how important it is to pay attention to others when they speak. No matter what your profession, you will be apt to achieve much greater success if you know how to listen with intention. For example, a doctor must listen carefully to the patient in order to properly diagnose the ailment; a salesperson must be attentive to clients in order to meet their needs; a manager must listen to the staff in order to optimize productivity; a parent must listen to a child to develop a bond; and a prospective romantic partner had better listen to their love interest if they’re hoping for...a relationship. Why then, are we such bad listeners?
Many years ago, when I was studying in Geneva, Switzerland, I met another Canadian on the bus. He was a businessman working for an international company, and fairly new to the city. I was twenty years old; he was about twenty-seven. When he invited me out for dinner, I accepted. Why not? He seemed nice enough. A few days later, we met at a quaint little bistro in town. Very much a gentleman, he opened the door for me, took my coat, and pulled out my chair at the table—a good start.
When I asked him about his family, the floodgates opened. For three hours, over cheese fondue and a bottle of wine, I learned a great deal about the man: his childhood, his college days, his parents and siblings, his job, his career aspirations, and his travels. By the end of the evening, I felt like I had known this guy forever. And he thought the same thing about me. “I can’t believe how much we have in common,” he said. “I think there’s a destiny thing happening here.” Given the fact that I hadn’t said one word about myself the entire evening, I wanted to laugh. Needless to say, we did not start dating.
Why do people need to talk so much? Perhaps for attention, for self-affirmation, to share knowledge, to show-off, or out of nervousness. Or, to be cynical, because of a sincere lack of interest in others. In Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People he tells us, “Remember that the people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in you and your problems. A person’s toothache means more to that person than a famine in China which kills a million people.”
When my husband and I moved to a new neighbourhood with our young children, a local minister came to visit. “A getting to know you visit” he called it. He came for coffee after dinner and was most congenial. He told us about his early ministry, his family, about interesting people he knew, and then shared a few entertaining stories. As he was leaving, he shook our hands and said, “It was a pleasure getting to know you.” When we closed the door, my husband and I looked at each other and smiled. What did this minister learn about us? Not a thing. He hadn’t asked one question, or indicated the least bit of interest in us. But his task was done and he could check off the visit on his list of obligations.
I hope I’m a good listener. I do have a genuine interest in what others have to say and I’m generally a curious person, but I know that I can be guilty of talking too much myself, especially about a topic that I’m passionate about. The other day I was so immersed in a discussion with someone that a third person had to call a time-out to get a word in edgewise—a good reminder of how one must always be mindful of others in a group.
Being a good listener does not necessitate sitting in silence while everybody else speaks, but knowing when to pipe in and when to keep mum. Monopolizing the conversation, interrupting others, or tuning people out (as we think of our next statement) are absolute no-no’s and definitely not the way to “win friends and influence people.” The challenge is to be self-aware, socially conscious, and intentional about our listening skills.
Recently, my brother chastised me for interrupting him. At first I was defensive. “But you interrupt me all the time!” I said. Then I realized he was right; I did interrupt him, and it was rude. Part of being a good listener means not cutting people off, which really boils down to courtesy. But even the most well-intentioned listeners can slip-up sometimes, and as with anything, there’s always room for improvement.
Dale Carnegie’s advice: “If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their accomplishments.”
...and then everybody can be friends!