“Listening is everything. Listening is the whole deal.” – Meryl Streep
I’ve often said that my acting training taught me, fundamentally, how to be a better person. This quote from the queen (HRH Meryl) illustrates one critical way that it helped me be a better worker, wife, and mother – I was taught how to actively listen. It’s a skill we mostly take for granted, like breathing – we think that it’s something automatic when it really isn’t. True listening requires practice - to stay in the moment, to be curious about the other person, and to really accept, without judgement, what they are trying to communicate. The effort is more than worth it, though, because the benefits of active listening pretty much improve every aspect of your life.
Active listening is even harder to engage in these days because we are often encouraged NOT to listen. A lot of our current media environment – particularly social media – isn’t designed for it. It’s designed for talking. For sharing, for shouting, even, from our virtual soapboxes. We talk a lot AT each other about the problems we face and what to do about them, but when was the last time you listened and actually considered another person’s opinion, especially if it differed from your own? When was the last time you paused instead of typing a response or retweeting an angry invective? When was the last time you just sat and absorbed what another person had to say, without furiously generating a response in your head (even before the other person finished talking)?
I get it. It feels good to have an outlet for our thoughts. A place to shout – this is who I am and what I think! A place to vent the rage and growing sense of futility that (if you’re like me) has been steadily increasing this year. But it’s not very productive – I’m pretty sure that we’d all agree that it doesn’t solve anything. Mostly, it makes us feel angrier and more alone.
The good news is that antidote to most of these feelings – and our growing list of challenges -- is listening. There are things I was taught as an actor when learning active listening for the stage, but I’ve found the same rules apply in life (with maybe even better outcomes):
3 Tips to Become a Better Listener:
1. Be Curious. Be interested in the other person -- what they have to say, what they think, and HOW – not why – they’ve come to think this way. Drop your assumptions and try not to anticipate what someone is going to say. Which leads me to…
2. Stay Present. Be in the moment. Try to still the voice in your head that is already generating that response or going down a whole other rabbit hole.
3. Withhold Judgement. This one is hard, especially if you feel like what the other person is saying is absolutely wrong – or even dangerous. But you’d be surprised by what comes up – and out – when people feel free to share openly and safely. You might even be able to find some common ground.
I can speak from personal experience that these three actions require a LOT of practice. They’re hard and go against what feels good – and sometimes even right. But becoming a better listener is more about playing the long game – forgoing the short term gratification to solve longer term goals. True, deep and active listening:
1. Helps you see problems more clearly. Sometimes we *think* we understand what the problem is, and we *think* about it 500 ways to Sunday. But thinking solo only keeps us tied to our own limited perceptions and bias. Listening to others can radically alter the way we perceive a problem.
2. Helps you collaborate. Two heads are better than one. But if you’re not listening to one another you can’t work very well together, and in fact, you can come into a lot of conflict, creating more problems than just the one you’re trying to solve. Listening takes you from the I to the We – and gets you where you want to go, faster.
3. Creates Good Vibes. Okay, this is a little squishy – but hear me out. Good listening tends to quickly become reciprocal. It’s a behavior that is easily modeled, tends to put others at ease, and makes them more likely to listen to you in return. Good listening can diffuse tension, calm angry conflicts, and builds stronger and longer lasting relationships.
This pandemic has presented us with a great opportunity to practice this basic skill. We have to find a way to bridge the gaps – over zoom and conference calls – so that we can remain connected to each other. Active listening helps us create and maintain these bonds when we can’t be physically together. It helps make those around us – friends, family, and colleagues – feel seen, validated, and ultimately, closer to us. And that makes everything just a little easier.