The first duty of love is to listen
— Paul Johannes Tillich
I confess I’m sick. Maybe you are too and don’t know it. I suffer from a common illness affecting millions of people in the United States.
If you know what to look for, the symptoms are obvious. This sickness has affected my relationships for years.
People have drawn conclusions about me because of it. I offended people and didn’t know it.
Without a cure, I’ll never achieve my full potential.
My sickness — I’m a bad listener.
But I’m not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from bad listening skills. One recent study indicated that the attention span of a person in 2012 is 8 seconds while that of a goldfish is 9 seconds!
Symptoms of a bad listener
You can easily spot bad listeners. They’re the people sighing and squirming as they wait for a chance to add their “two cents” to any conversation. They work on other projects while people talk to them. They don’t make eye contact. They ask people to repeat what they said because they didn’t hear it the first time.
For years, I was an unwitting (but no less guilty) offender. My wife was always telling me to stop interrupting people and let them finish what they were saying. Other times she would say,”I already told you that, but I guess you weren’t listening.” Or how about this one, “You never listen when I’m talking to you!”
My own selfishness prevented me from giving her, and others, what they craved and deserved — my full attention.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
I recently read an article by Madelyn Burley-Allen, Ph.D, author of Listening: The Forgotten Skill. In the article, she defines three levels of listening.
- Level 1 : At this level there is conscious attention, understanding, awareness of the moment, respect and a spirit of cooperation.
- Level 2: This level of listening is characterized as containing partial awareness, being in and out of consciousness, listening to words but not fully understanding the meaning of the message.
- Level 3: This level has dangerous consequences. It’s an automatic “tuned-out” mode. Internal distractions include daydreaming, thinking about something else, self- dialogue, finding fault, and negative feelings. Not much of what is said will be remembered.
The problem is many of us rarely reach Level 1.
Why listening is so important
Dr. Burley-Allen goes on to state that people often confuse hearing with listening resulting in dangerous consequences.
When we think about listening, we tend to assume it is basically the same as hearing; this is a dangerous misconception because it leads us to believe effective listening is instinctive. As a result, we make little effort to learn, or develop listening skills, and unknowingly neglect a vital communication function. Consequently, we create unnecessary problems for ourselves and others: misunderstanding, hurt feelings, confused instructions, loss of important information, embarrassment, frustration, and lost opportunities.
Listening involves a more sophisticated mental process than hearing. It demands energy and discipline. Listening is most often a learned skill. The first step is to realize that effective listening is an active, not a passive process. A skilled listener doesn’t just sit there and allow listening to happen haphazardly. [Bold is mine]
Wow! How many problems have we created for ourselves because we didn’t take the time to listen the first time? How much confusion could have been avoided?
If we want to have better relationships and fewer problems we need to constantly improve our listening skills.
How to be a better listener
Recently, I developed a way to improve my listening that you may want to try.
I created a simple acronym to help me remember it: S-E-L-L
Stop what you are doing. – Don’t work on other tasks or projects while people are talking to you. Give the other person the attention of your whole self.
Engage – Smile and make eye contact with the person who is talking.
Listen – Don’t just hear, actively listen to what the person is saying. Imagine the words entering your ears.
Learn – Engage your brain in the listening. Process the information that you are hearing and ask followup questions to confirm you understand what is being said. You may want to try questions like: “So what I’m hearing you say is…” or “So what you want me to do is…”
These simple steps have improved my listening considerably. I don’t think I’ll ever “arrive” but I am getting better all the time and you can too.
Lend me your ear
Some of you may wonder what listening has to do with giving, since that is the real focus of this blog.
Listening makes us better givers in two ways.
- Listening is a gift that we can share. It costs little and can have a huge impact on the listener and on the speaker.
Everybody just wants to be heard. Toni Morrison said that what every child wants to know is, ‘Do your eyes light up when I enter the room? Did you hear me and did what I say mean anything to you?’ That’s all they’re looking for. That’s what everybody is looking for. And the reason I think my ability to communicate with people around the world has been so rewarded is because I actually understand that. — Oprah Winfrey
- Listening identifies needs. You can’t meet a need if you don’t know about it. Unfortunately, most of us don’t take the time to listen because we are too focused on our own needs, wants and desires. Next time you are talking to someone take the time to ask them what is going on in their life. You may find out there is a way that you can help them succeed in some big or small way.
Want to start improving your listening right away. Take a simple test over a two day period.
Day 1 consider how much time you spend on each listening level? Do you ever get to level 1? I know I ‘ve spent a lot of time on 2 and 3.
Day 2 use the SELL technique to improve your listening.
I would love to hear what you learn.
Most importantly, today and every day make giving a part of your daily living. rr
 Source: Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use,” in the ACM Transactions on the Web, vol. 2, no. 1 (February 2008), article #5.
 Source : Article 515- Positive Influence by Effective Listening.” 2002. 13 Jul. 2012 <http://www.winstonbrill.com/bril001/html/article_index/articles/501-550/article515_body.html>
“Oprah Winfrey: ‘Everybody Just Wants to Be Heard’ | Parade.com.” 2010. 17 Jul. 2012 <http://www.parade.com/celebrity/celebrity-parade/2010/1222-oprah-biggest-dream-ever.html