One of the most supremely loving gestures we can give another is to listen to them. Yet for most of us, being listened to is a rare experience. What makes it so hard to give this simple gift to each other?
We remember those days so well. The early romance days. Living in two different cities we relied on phone calls and letters and counted the days until we would see each other again. Those phone calls were treasured time together, straining to hear to every syllable, every breath, every sigh.
We tuned our hearing so as to capture every nuance of meaning. The other’s attentiveness affirmed, it healed, and it inspired an even deeper commitment to loving the other.
Listening fuelled our experience of falling in love. It also transformed that love from early infatuation into a love that knows the other for who they truly are. Listening has also sustained our love over decades and will continue to do so for more to come.
Listening, truly listening to another, is a supreme act of love. When we ‘are truly known’, it meets deep emotional needs and nourishes our self-esteem. It lays the foundation for secure attachment in all our relationships from childhood into adulthood.
It also provides the listener the opportunity to really understand the person who they are trying to love; in a manner that just doesn’t happen in the daily talk centred around information sharing and efficient planning.
To listen is a simple act; the act of being profoundly present. To be in the moment with the other person, attentive to them, exclusively. It is a whole-body endeavour, requiring not just our ears, but also our consent, communicated through both our verbal and body language. Three things are essential to good listening.
Firstly, we must recruit our attentiveness. This means attuning our attention, giving our full focus to the other. Eye contact, physically turning towards the other, removing distractions are all part of attentiveness. Mentally, we need to set aside our preoccupations so that we can use all our mental energy for the task.
In practical terms, that means putting down the remote control and phone, turning off the telly or computer, closing the book or paper, and ceasing any other activity. Yep, that includes rosary beads, bibles and prayer books!
Secondly, to listen well, we need to not just hear what the other says, but also confirm that we’ve heard and understood the message. The message is always more than the words said. It often comes packaged in innuendo and red herrings. There is meaning embedded in the tone, in the emotional content behind the words, in the words not said, or said badly. It’s an active dance of discovery that requires us to respond and synchronise with the other’s lead.
Thus, all listening is a dialogue, an exchange. Good listeners seek to tenderly explore the person behind the words. To know ‘who’ is speaking, rather than ‘what’ is being said.
Thirdly, listening takes self-discipline. The discipline of restraining our advice, our opinion, our need to reply, correct or defend. This is especially challenging when the message of the speaker is one of complaint or one we find unfair, judgemental or offensive in some way. Hard to imagine that ever happens to us, right?!
Problem-solving can come later, the first task is just to listen, to connect. This is why self-discipline is key to good listening because without it, we short-change the opportunity it offers and pay the price for that later.
There are many things that can challenge our marriage and make it harder than it should be. The art of listening is like a free pass to a better relationship. It costs nothing to do, requires nothing but the intention, a genuine curiosity to know each other better and a little self-discipline along the way. It is a real form of loving smart.
Finally, we need to remember that we were great at it when we fell in love and so we can be confident we can do it now if we so choose.
“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.”
– Margaret J. Wheatley