Listen and Learn

I often remind myself to talk less and listen more, because I have a strong tendency to the former, and while I want to listen to others, indeed respect what is being said (most of the time) I seem to have a hard time stopping my mouth. The truth is I think I have a harder time stopping my brain than my mouth, but the core effect is the same: it is hard to hear what someone else is saying when either your brain or your mouth is running on, and if you can’t hear what is being said there is no chance that you are going to learn anything new.

A brief digression: My son is an amazing story-teller. He will start with what you think is a basic explanation of the functionality of the new Lego ship he built and forty-five minutes later he is explaining the intricacies of inter-galactic travel and the possibility of life on other planets. Listening to what he is saying, actively listening where you participate and ask questions and think about what is being said can be hard. It’s not that I don’t want to hear about it, well, honestly sometimes I don’t, but I do value what he has to say – it’s that letting go of all of the other stuff happening in your head so that you can be fully present in what is happening in that moment is not easy. It’s not easy to turn off all of the stuff you want to say and think, or to slow down the planning for the next minute, day, week or month to let yourself fully engage in the information coming from someone else.

I don’t know what every recovery program is like because I am and have only ever been in one. And, I haven’t been in it for very long so don’t have a whole lot of information to go off of. But, one of the things I have already learned, from listening, is that there is actually room enough for everyone to be heard. Sometimes in our lives we get loud, or obnoxious, or inconsiderate, or a number of other things largely, I think, because we don’t believe that we are being heard and at a fundamental level we all want to be heard, physically and emotionally. I don’t think that we can all get heard exactly when we want, sometimes we may have to hold onto our thoughts and wait our turn, but there does seem to be room enough for everyone. And sometimes, as you wait your turn, if you know that your turn will come, you are able to still that hand you are mentally waving in the air like an overachieving third grader, and hear some amazing things from the people who are in line before you. Or not. Not everything happening in the world of paying attention and listening is brilliant, but at least you have the chance to hear and think and reflect and there is a whole lot of learning that can come from that moment.

Another interesting thing I have picked up to date: even when someone says something you completely disagree with, or that you think is absurd in every conceivable way you have actually heard what they said just as they wanted to say it – without any layers of emotion that you needed to include because you wanted it to be your turn, or without hearing bits and pieces because you were in and out of focus as you thought of all the other things happening in your life. It was their moment and you can stop to hear it and reflect on it and there will still be room for you and what you want to say, and all of the things queued up in your brain for attention will either still be there or they will have self-defined their level of importance by leaving.
My struggle continues to be wanting to make sure that my thought or idea gets out there too – not because I necessarily believe it is smarter or better, but because I do believe (or maybe hope) that it will contribute to the community of ideas being considered. What I am learning is that it is important to listen, and perhaps to pause for consideration of my own before needing to say anything myself. Given the fact that I write it is natural that I would also want to speak. But I am becoming more confident in knowing that what I write, and what I say may be even more valuable if it is reasoned and thoughtful, not just noisy!

Listening does not have to mean agreeing. I hear, see, and read a lot that I don’t agree with at all. But stilling my desire to jump in and cut someone off, or read half the article and then expound on what was written let’s me take the time to consider why I disagree, what I see as problematic, and reason somewhat more logically, or at least calmly, on what it is that I do want to say. It also gives me the time to really think about what is being communicated, and I am finding that something that I might react to immediately one way changes as I sit with it, if only briefly.

When I was in college and grad. school and was listening to a lecturer who I did not agree with I don’t know how much listening I was really doing. I was impatient and bored and would tune out what was being said to busy myself with something else. They would say something and I would think, “I totally disagree because…” and that was it – I didn’t hear anything else because I had decided I disagreed. I’m not suggesting now that had I continued to pay attention I would have agreed, but I’m also not sure I can justifiably tell you why I disagreed. I made a quick decision and stopped listening. Maybe if I had spent a little more time listening I would have been able to create a better counter argument myself, or would have been challenged to think about something in a different way – who knows, because I didn’t give myself the room to learn.

This is not meant to suggest that you (or I) should listen to everything that everyone is saying – that is ridiculous and impossible. I am suggesting that many of us (myself in particular) can spend more time than I tend to in listening in the activities and situations I naturally find myself in. For instance, I am not going to seek out the oratory of Fox News just because I might be challenged to think about something in a new way: I might, but my brain might also explode and certain things I would like to avoid. But when I’m sitting in a board or committee meeting and Talky the talker starts I can still both my mouth and my brain from immediately going to why I disagree so that I can listen to what they are saying, think about what I have heard, and determine if I have something that I want to contribute.

Sometimes it is just a matter of quieting all of the other sounds in my brain and what I hear are words without comprehension, but as the words are flowing there is at least the opportunity for hearing and from that of learning: perhaps something totally new, perhaps a different view of something familiar, perhaps a new way of thinking about myself. Sometimes just stopping all of the other sounds to listen means that I have to spend more time listening to myself and I get to learn more about what all the noise I create is really about. The most profound lesson I have learned so far is that if you come to truly believe that you have a right to be heard you magically find that you also have the ability to listen.

One thought on “Listen and Learn

  1. Listening is hard, really hard. And important, really important. My husband’s father told him: “You never learn anything when you’re talking!” To an extent very true. And it is hard, so hard to still all the noise around us and distractions and interruptions – it is a wonder anyone can really hear anyone at all. Especially if you have children or live with other people. Or are saddled with a racing brain, as then listening inevitably includes high speed processing and either formulating a response before the speaker has even finished, or trying to hold your thought until the question period at the end, which basically renders listening past the point the question popped up impossible. But listening is an art, and well worth cultivating. Good listeners are said to be hard to find. But good conversation is a testament to listening too.

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