Stop that Wandering Mind
How to recover the lost art of listening
(article written in 2001 for a college course)
The voices in your head never stop. They fight endlessly for your attention. Which one will win out? It doesn’t seem to matter as long as nothing interrupts their attack. How could your friend, mother, coworker, or significant other compare with all those battering voices?
Kristen Langellier, Professor of Communication at the University of Maine, says, “If we spent as much time teaching people to listen as we spend teaching them to talk, the world and our relationships would be in better shape. Speaking and listening and interrelated.”
Wouldn’t everyone in your life benefit from knowing they can count on you to really listen to them? You might be pleasantly surprised to find them returning the favor.
Why have good listening skills?
Angelee Johns, Instructor of Speech at Triton College in Illinois, points out, “Many of us don’t listen well-really hear what another person is thinking-but rather filter what is being said through our own perspective.”
Listening has become a lost art in modern society. So little communication actually takes place face to face, it is easy to lose touch with other people in our lives.
When you have a conversation, it is easy to assume you have the other person’s undivided attention and interest. Unfortunately, it is just as easy for the other person to be consumed with his/her own thoughts, only feigning interest in what you are saying.
The Art of Conversation
Our minds are seldom silent. The brain can process a large volume of information simultaneously, making it more difficult to be anything but preoccupied. Thinking can be so efficient that we often lose sight of the value of inner silence.
People have the ability to listen at a rate of 500 to 1,000 words per minute, while the average rate of speech is only 150 words per minute. The speaker is at a disadvantage because he is constantly competing with your thoughts.
During most conversations, many people are guilty of wondering about what they will have for lunch, what will be on television that night, or how much work they have left to complete. Time is previous and we often think we can’t afford to waste it on a leisurely chat.
The World Outside Your Head
Sometimes the situation consists of conversation we are very interested in, such as a reunion with an old friend, or a fight with a loved one. The question still applies: How much listening are you actually doing? You might just be mentally rehearsing what you wills ay and waiting for your turn to speak, or picking up on snippets of information that are relevant to you.
In these instances, the other person’s points often go unacknowledged as you quickly attempt to steer the conversation in your own favor. You may also find yourself distracted by the other person’s physical appearance, wondering why they chose to wear that sweater, or put on so much perfume.
Human beings are so easily distracted that it is difficult to pay attention to that which requires the most attention-the words coming out of the other person’s mouth.
If you quiet your mind and stop thinking of hot to top the other person with your own experiences and witty commentary, you might discover that you are not the only one out there with problems, emotions, and concerns worth examination.
Listening means sincere interest in hearing what someone has to say. In other words, try to escape your own mind and focus on the person speaking to you.
Human beings are social creatures. Showing others that you value them, their thoughts, ideas and feelings will not only benefit them, but you as well.
When others find that you are willing to listen to them, open-mindedly and without interruption, they are compelled to open up to you. The effect is similar to having a heavy weight lifted off their backs.
The act of listening, according to essayist Brenda Ueland, is a “magnetic and strange thing, a creative force…When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life….”
Good listeners are rare and finding them is often a refreshing experience. Here are some tips to keep in mind the next time you find yourself in conversation:
- Pay Attention
Try to put aside all your preoccupations and focus on the person speaking. “Good listeners should stop doing everything they’re doing and give the speaker their undivided attention,” says Kelly J. Watkins, author of “Listening: The Silent Side of Communication.”
- Maintain Eye Contact
There’s nothing worse than trying to have a conversation and find that the other person is looking over your shoulder, at the floor, at their watch, etc.
- Don’t interrupt
Wait for the person to stop speaking before asking any questions or giving your opinion. Be courteous and patient. In her article, “Listening for Success,” Georgia Beaverson suggests, “Be willing to stop talking. A good listener spends 70 percent of his or her time listening and only 30 percent talking.
- Be empathetic
Experience the other person’s position as much as possible. Listen for feeling and meaning between the words. Angelee Johns at Triton College explains, “Poor listening means we miss information we need to have, judge people wrongly, become unnecessarily defensive, become stubbornly opinionated and on and on.”
- Repeat and Summarize
Show the other person you have been listening by giving constructive feedback, paraphrasing what has been said, and asking for clarification. Show your interest in the exchange that has just taken place.
It is natural to be concerned primarily with our own lives and experiences, but we should consider taking a break from ourselves and be more receptive to the people around us.
As Johns points out, “When people speak, they are expressing their own thoughts and ideas. When people listen well, they are able to hear the thoughts and ideas of others. When people are limited to their own thoughts, they are just that—limited.”
Initiating conversation is often an attempt to relate to another person, to share an understanding or create a pleasant atmosphere. You might learn interesting details about your friends and acquaintances or think of situations from another point of view.
“When we can listen carefully to the thoughts of others, we have the opportunity to look at our own thoughts in new ways. That broadens us, helps us understand the world, other people and ourselves better,” Johns explains.
There is nothing to lose by becoming a good listener, and the rewards are great. The greatest reward just might be a life-long friend.