When I was living in S. Korea, I made a point of learning the language and using it whenever I had the opportunity. However, more than once, I walked into a shop and asked a question in (relatively) good Korean only to be answered by the wide-eyed shop keeper with a hand up in a “stop” gesture and “So-ree. No En-guh-lish-ee.” And that was the end of the conversation.
After this happened two or three times, I finally figured out the problem – the shopkeepers heard the language that they expected to hear. They were not actively listening to the words coming out of my mouth, so when they saw my white face, they assumed I would speak English. I adjusted my approach to start off with a Korean greeting in order to “warm up the ears” of the shopkeeper, which worked beautifully.
Let me repeat the problem I experienced: People hear what they expect to hear.
Admittedly, the case I have just related is an extreme example (though absolutely true); however, my observations indicate that we hear what we expect to hear, not necessarily what was actually said, especially when we are not actively and consciously listening. I see this with my students time after time, and I’ve even seen it happen with friends and family. Many times my students tell me they couldn’t focus on what a speaker said because they were distracted by their own opinions and views on the topic or by their perceptions of the speaker. Our biases interfere with our ability to listen accurately.
Julian Treasure, a sound and listening expert, calls these “filters,” which most often unconsciously determine where we place our listening attention, and so determine our sense of reality. In his TED Talk “Five Ways to Listen Better,” he references culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and intentions as filters that can interfere with listening. It seems to me that this encompasses just about all of the essentials of life!
So how can we ever begin to understand people with whom we disagree?
Julian Treasure uses the term “conscious listening,” which is the idea of being intentional in listening. Dr. Athena Staik describes five attributes of conscious listening:
- Train your mind to listen with an open heart
- Be an empathic presence
- Give empathic responses
- Be accepting and not judgmental
- Use clarifying questions
Of course, these things are very difficult to do when you are speaking with someone approaching the issue from a very different perspective. Another strategy is one employed in marriage counseling called the Speaker-Listener technique. This strategy is characterized by a focus on understanding, not agreement, and has the goal of intentional, conscious listening.
These sources have one key element in common – effective conscious listening does not happen when we are focused on our own position, our own ideas, our own “rightness.” Conscious listening requires both parties to view the situation from the other’s perspective. This is what makes listening an art. Empathy, kindness, integrity, trustworthiness, a willingness to suspend reactions – these are keys to open communication, and it starts with listening. Focus on the heart of what people are saying rather than on the words used to express those ideas, and ask questions to clarify when the words make the message unclear.
The fact is that the Bible has a lot to say about listening; one website lists 72 scriptures that talk about listening! One of my favorites has always been James 1:19, which says that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak. Another relevant verse is Proverbs 18:13, which says that it is foolish (or destructive to relationships) to answer a matter before listening. What these scriptures emphasize to me is that listening is an essential skill in building and maintaining relationships. In my experience, when people feel they are being listened to, they feel accepted and loved. This is an essential key if we are to have an impact in our culture, if we are going to be responsive to God’s call to share His love with a broken world.
Just think, how could our lives and our communities be transformed if we simply began practicing conscious listening?
Links and Resources:
Julian Treasure, free online Sound Affects! course
Dr. Athena Staik, Psych Central, “Five Attributes of Conscious Listening” article
The PREP Program, Speaker-Listener Technique, presentation slides
72 Bible verses about listening, website