I wish I could do a pull-up for every time someone did not really hear me. Now I know why.
I wasn’t listening. I didn’t hear them. I didn’t hear myself. I couldn’t stop thinking long enough to hear anything or anyone.
Listening was an excruciating menace to my agenda any given day. It seemed everywhere I went I was supposed to listen. Church, school, play practice, even crossing the railroad tracks required a quick ear tip to see if the whistle was blowing. I couldn’t escape the racket, but I usually only pretended to listen. I caught the important phrases. I got the gist of the topic I was supposed to be absorbing and faking it seemed to get me by—at least in group settings, but one-on-one I faltered.
If my attention was on a task at hand, I’d nod and glance at the person talking, but only half-listen which is not listening at all. I was conditioned to think that it would be rude to ask someone to wait to talk to me and even more rude to ask them to repeat themselves if I didn’t hear them, but true rudeness is letting someone ramble on when I’m not listening with my whole heart, only letting their words cycle through my ears.
People all over are spilling their guts to zombies and then expecting the zombies to offer advice or empathy. Sometimes that “people” is us. We want to be heard. Sometimes the “zombies” are us, too preoccupied to offer logical guidance. Neither side of these lopsided conversations is fun.
I’ve been on the battlefield of the unheard and felt sorry for myself — sorry that my words seemed invisible to others, the meaning behind them evaporating even as they poured from my mouth. I talked louder and faster and still no one seemed to truly hear me. Then I realized that I had muted my own voice by not listening. I was earning the same treatment I was giving others.
When I started practicing quieting my mind, my communication skills improved. I stopped planning the next sentence to speak even as someone was speaking to me. I looked them in the eyes when possible and felt the words — felt them with my heart and as I did, others were more receptive to my input, more willing to consider my opinion.
REALLY listening requires a quiet mind … and if your world’s like mine, quiet can be hard to come by, especially in my head. There’s lists and chores and wants and needs and … well, you get the idea. So how do we quiet our mind and why should we?
Our brains aren’t designed to be able to listen and to formulate thought at the same exact moment. It may seem like we can because as we listen, ideas pop into our heads, but the moment we generate our own thought, we are no longer actually listening. True listening requires a mindful practice of emptying our mind. It’s a skill that requires patience if you want to get good at it.
The first step is to simply be aware, recognize when you are thinking about the next thing you want to say to someone who is talking to you. You catch yourself thinking when you should be listening.
So what do you do, you say. You can’t just stop thinking. Why? Who says you can’t? Now, granted it doesn’t happen overnight. This is a practice that may take a lifetime to master. I started practicing listening a few years ago and I still catch myself thinking when I should be listening, but now when I do I can stop my brain banter much quicker than I used to.
I can’t listen when I’m texting or typing or doing anything more than a rote skill such as dusting or washing dishes. Now, if someone starts talking to me when I’m in the middle of an email, I will simply ask them to wait until I have finished — that is unless they are announcing that the house is on fire, but if my son starts jabbering away about his newest plans for his future while I’m unpacking groceries, I’m all ears and listening with all my heart.
Michele Zirkle Marcum is a native of Meigs County and an author. Her column appears each Tuesday.