The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting. – Fran Lebowitz
I saw this quote the other day and began to think about the last time I had a really good conversation with someone. And then I asked myself, “How many true conversations have I ever had?” – Not all that many, it seems.
Lebowitz hit the nail on the head here. Watch closely the next time you see two people talking. Do you see one person speaking immediately followed by the other one responding? Person #2 in that conversation already had in mind what to say before person #1 had even finished the thought. Person #2 was waiting instead of listening. When you think about it, it’s actually kind of rude. But it’s something almost everyone does.
Everyone has thoughts they want to express. To many people, it’s more important to speak than to listen. And besides, silence during a conversation is usually uncomfortable. If it happens, someone is tempted to fill the space with words. But silence is necessary in a conversation if true listening is to take place. Silence allows for comprehension and response preparation.
Then there are times when people are talking at each other rather than to each other. You know how it works. One person completes a thought. The other one (seemingly oblivious to what was just said) immediately introduces an entire new topic. Words are just out there in space for anyone interested.
I’ve been guilty of it myself far too often. Even during my years as a reporter, I often wrote down the source’s response while thinking about the next question I was ready to ask. Even reporters don’t listen at times.
But as I’ve aged, I’ve learned how to really listen. It involves patience and no preconceived agenda. Many times when someone is finished speaking to me, they’ll notice a pause in the conversation. I’ve been listening. Now I’m contemplating my response. Then I speak. That’s how listening works. And it really isn’t that hard if you try.
When you’re really listening, you’ll learn to notice what the person isn’t saying as much as what they are saying. That’s also a form of listening. You’ll also begin to notice body language. Yes, EVERYONE speaks in body language. And it can say a lot more than can words. Someone’s words combined with what they’re not saying and their body language can sometimes say something entirely different from what is coming out of their mouth. That’s advanced listening.
If you get really good at it, some people will think you have a special gift – that you have an intuition not shared by other people. My response: “I was just listening.”
So I encourage everyone to try it. True listening can almost always make good conversations even better. And you just might hear something that you would miss otherwise.