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13 Feb

The Art of Listening

In truth, we don’t really listen at all. Our minds are so full of thoughts about what to say next and how we can interrupt before the moment has passed. Consequently, instead of listening to their words, we listen for the space between the words that allows us to enter.

Many years ago, when I first became interested in helping others to find their road to happiness, I used to visit the coffee bar at my local library. I would take a book, and sit with a cup of coffee for half an hour or so at lunchtime. Most of the time the place was fairly quiet and I would enjoy my book, but every now and again a conversation would intrude.

I would listen.

I was truly able to listen because I was not officially a party to the conversation.

I discovered several things in my listening.

The first was that my belief that I lived in a different world from most people was confirmed.

Most of these overheard conversations were about dreary, humdrum stuff that ordinarily would be of no interest to me. Two subjects dominated: ill-health and TV.

What surprised me about the conversations regarding TV programmes (usually soaps) was that the conversationists spoke as if the characters were real people rather than good actors. Now, I can get into a programme while I’m watching it and feel excitement and sadness, fear and relief, but when it’s finished all of that goes. If the director was particularly skilful that may stay with me for a little while, but I never move to a state where I think any of it is real.

Why these overheard conversations surprised me was that it seemed there was real hatred felt towards the characters that were treating others unkindly. I heard opinions about what this or that character should/shouldn’t have done – as if the actor had a choice! I found it all very strange. They were behaving as if these were real events happening to real people.

Are they confused about reality?

Do they shift into an alternate universe in order to gain maximum pleasure from what they watch?

I have no idea, but it is quite fascinating.

The health thing was even more interesting. I heard many of these conversations and they were always the same – a tennis match.

One party would toss a ball over the net, an in-growing toenail say; while this was being described in glorious Technicolor the other would be searching their memory for someone they knew who also had an in-growing toenail that was worse. Maybe, if there were no in-growing toenails, they knew someone who had had their toe amputated. The response had to relate to the original ball that was tossed over the net, but the ball that was returned had to be bigger and faster. This would go on rapidly escalating to someone with cancer, a major operation, or the death of some distant acquaintance.

This is a frequently observed pattern of conversation. Someone offers a gem of something and, while they continue speaking, the listener is searching for some kind of related response that will keep them in the game.  To stay in the game you have to produce something related but bigger and better. If it’s a firsthand experience you might just win, but something related to you by a friend of a friend will keep you playing.

There is a deeply felt need to come out on top.

Imagine what would happen if you just listened in silence with no intention of replying.

I have done this. Some people just continue to fill the space. If the topic runs out of steam, the silence is intolerable and the other party will usually find something to fill it.

As I learned how to spend more time listening with a quiet mind that was uninterested in responding, I found I began to hear what wasn’t being said. The topics that were avoided; the things the speaker identified with; and sometimes even whether or not the speaker was being truthful.

When you truly listen, you connect at a deep level with the speaker – no matter what the topic of conversation is.

So listen with your heart rather than your head. Let the words flow without feeling any need to respond, look into the speaker’s eyes and connect with them at a soul level. When you learn how to do this, your conversations will be the best you’ve ever had.

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