Listening is an art. We should be experts at it. After all, it is something we
do every day of our lives. Unfortunately, in a modern urban environment where
we are continually assailed by noise, most of us have perfected the art of not
listening. If we paid attention to all the auditory stimulation we are subjected
to, our health would quickly break down. For self- protection, we have trained
ourselves to screen out unwanted noise. Good to a point, this practice can also
"protect" us from hearing what is vital to our health and relationships.
Reconsider the art of listening, and how and to whom we should really listen.
The "how" of listening involves time, attention and care. So often
only half our attention is on any given conversation. The other half is on where
we need to be next or what else we could be doing with this time. Even the half
that is allotted to the conversation is divided; frequently we are concentrating
so hard on what we will say next that we barely hear what the other person is
saying. We miss the nuances that help us to understand the other's meaning. Listening
for the tone of voice, the feelings behind the words, and for what is not said
help us to really hear. Also, 70 - 80% of communication is nonverbal. So we must
"listen" with our eyes as well as our ears. Discrepancies between nonverbal
(posture, facial expression, etc.) and verbal communication are potent advisors
of unspoken concerns. When someone says "everything's fine" in a glib
tone but with a smile that doesn't reach the eyes, you will know that it's not.
Responding "I hear you saying that all's well, but your eyes look sad"
offers the other person the gift of your attention, and the opportunity to open
up further if he or she wishes to do so. Even if you can't alter someone's situation,
your willingness to listen can be a powerful source of support and encouragement.
To whom should we listen? To God, to those who are important to us, and to
ourselves. A wit once said, "When you talk to God, it's called prayer. When
God talks to you, it's called schizophrenia!". Too many of us are afraid
of being labeled schizophrenics. We miss the point that prayer is meant to be
a dialogue, so we fill our prayer time with words, leaving no space for God to
talk to us. Yet the Bible contains many examples of God speaking to people, especially
in the quiet moments. Elijah heard God, not in the earthquake, fire or storm,
but in the still, small voice after the storm. Samuel heard God in the quiet of
the night. Unless we allow ourselves quiet time, we have little chance of hearing
the still, small voice. If you want calm amidst turmoil, strength when you are
feeling exhausted, and help with choices and priorities, make regular time to
listen to God as well as to tell Him your concerns.
Listening to those
for whom we care deeply is an important key to keeping relationships strong and
growing. Profound truths are often hidden in tiny, off-hand statements that are
easily overlooked. A comment that someone who has been actively searching for
work for several months is "a little discouraged" by the lack of job
opportunities can hide a growing sense of uncertainty and despair. Strain that
affects one member of a family affects all members as they try to support and
compensate for the one who is struggling. Arguments become a common occurrence
and relationships can start to deteriorate. Even familiarity can prevent us from
really hearing someone close to us. We tend to relate to spouses, children and
parents based on the image that we have formed of them. If Grandpa is usually
loud and argumentative and Grandma usually talks nonstop without saying anything
interesting, then we don't have to listen much to what they're saying. We already
know roughly what they're going to say, so we prepare our defenses for Grandpa
and nod at intervals to Grandma while we think about other things. It's easy to
miss that Grandpa is getting more argumentative because he's worried about Grandma's
health, and Grandma is chatting to cover her own worries. Chances are they aren't
listening to each other either! A certain amount of "selective perception"
is normal and healthy in any relationship because not all conversation is profound
and deeply meaningful. However it is important to remember that things change
for all of us. Regular, "real" contact with those we care for will keep
us in touch with what life is like for them, and will facilitate growth in our
relationships as changes happen.
Finally, we need to listen to ourselves.
It is normal to be tired at the end of a day or after an unusual amount of exertion.
However if you are feeling tired all the time, another cup of coffee is not the
answer. Causes of ongoing fatigue can range from an unhealthy lifestyle, through
anemia and heart disease, to depression. The same can be said for most bodily
symptoms. Similarly, if you are chronically anxious, insomniac, or unable to make
decisions, there is likely to be something that you are carefully hiding from
yourself or refusing to face. The ostrich approach doesn't work. Listening to
what the self is telling us and taking steps to resolve problems does.
Learning to listen, to God, others and ourselves, takes time and care. However,
it can help to improve our mental, physical and spiritual health and relationships.
It is an art worth developing.