Listening is an art form. For some it is a natural ability, for others it takes a bit more practice to get good at it. It is in listening completely, overriding the natural instinct to create your next reply before fully hearing the other person out, that I believe leads to Stephen R Covey’s statement “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply”.
It is only when we truly take the time and effort to listen, with the intent to understand, that we pick up on the details, the nuances of conversation, and the body language of the individual. As an HR professional, I often meet with staff that are immediately defensive even before I have said one word. I say this not in judgment but in understanding, as I know I have also spoke to others with my walls of defense up rather than being open to the conversation.
By making my focus the individual who is speaking with me and attempting to make them feel as though they are the most important thing at that exact moment, I gain trust and openness from the individual. There are times when the individual that I am speaking with asks a question that I may or may not have an immediate answer for, however, when I listen to understand, I often hear not just the question they are asking but what it is they truly want to know. These can be very different things. If I pause to put complete thought into the entirety of their words, body language, and intonations, I may have a completely different response than I initially intended to give.
Through much self-reflection, I have developed the ability to hesitate when I am feeling defensive or backed into a corner. Some individuals might view this as shutting down out of anger or frustration, but in reality it stops me from making a split-second response that could add fuel to the fire rather than solve the real issue. As someone who is a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my own performance, I tend to hear the slightest feedback as critical. What I have learned over time is that I can accept that I am human and will continue to make mistakes. I have not yet mastered the art of controlling my initial internal reactions. By remaining quiet and listening with the intent to understand, I can find the truth about what is being said and learn from it. I now seek feedback and listen for what I can glean from the subtext of information. Once you can do this you will then learn to determine what is factual, what you are willing to accept and what you should take to heart. My personal growth is worth taking the time to listen with understanding.
What I like best about this process is that I also learn to filter the information that I receive. I can accept my imperfections and, most importantly, remind myself that continuing to struggle with this is only a part of the process of growing. Every day I have a new opportunity to get better at listening to understand and there will be days when I will fail at this and that too is part of the process.
I have found this to be helpful, not only in my professional life, but my personal life as well. My spouse and I have been married for many years and have a great relationship. We seldom have disagreements but when we do, it often stems from not listening completely and with understanding. Defenses go up, stubbornness sets in and neither of us wants to be the first to give in. It occasionally leads to a silent house for several days as our frustration continues to grow. In the absence of discussion we create our own stories and embellish the reasons behind them. Like a fishing story, the story grows and when we finally do talk, it is with all the fuel we have thrown onto the fire since we have not been listening to understand. We have a reply ready without hearing what the underlying issue really is. When we finally take a step back and truly try to hear the other one out, we can resolve the issue and our relationship grows stronger.
Listening to understand can truly be a balm for the burns of our emotions.