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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

Why Me?

I was finishing up presenting an “Exquisite Listening®” communication skills workshop recently. We had just finished the last day’s series of exercises designed to help people learn how to have difficult conversations. At the closing, a participant rather indignantly asked, “Why should I have to be the one who has to listen to what they have to say, when they won’t listen to what I have to say?”

Why indeed. “Our communication broke down”, or “We just quit communicating”, is something I hear as a frequent cause of a relationship ending. The way I see it, it’s not so much that we don’t quit saying things, it’s that no one is listening anymore, thus my emphasis on learning how to listen as a key to relationship survival.

“Don’t interrupt!” Most everyone knows that we shouldn’t do that, but we still do it. Even professional listeners. Therapists are notoriously bad listeners. A recent Mayo clinic study showed that doctors, when meeting with patients, after asking the patient to tell them what was going on, listened for an average of 9 seconds before interrupting, and if they had listened for just 29 seconds longer, they would have gotten all the essential information they were looking for.

Sitting quietly, respectfully, waiting until the other person quits talking, and then reacting or responding to what they said, or saying out loud what we have been rehearsing in our minds as they were talking, is not listening. Neither is relating to something that they said, nor is asking questions about what they have said, (even if they are open ended ones). Praising them, giving them advice (even if they asked for it), constructive criticism (even if they asked for it, and by the way, criticism is criticism, it’s relationally corrosive, there is no such thing as constructive criticism), challenging them, pointing out what they could/should have done differently, trying to cheer them up, reminding them how lucky they are and how bad it could be, trying to help them, trying to fix the situation, and half a dozen other commonly used relationship “skills”, are the opposite of listening. No listening; no communication. There is noise. There is debate. Relationships fail because people give up trying to be heard and quit talking.

Ironically, we listen least well to those most important to us. More than one long-suffering friend has said to me, “I’d like to talk to you, and I wonder if you would pretend I am a client and listen to me as you would to them”? Geeze, I am always glad they hadn’t given up on me totally as a listener and took the risk to ask, and at the same time, I was sorry to be reminded that they had to ask.

We listen least well of all to ourselves. That’s an entirely different subject (and workshop).

George Bernard Shaw suggests that “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Next month I will be doing a multi-day listening workshop at Cambridge (England) University. They asked me for the first evening, to talk about why listening is important and what that has to do with learning how to have difficult conversations. It is noteworthy that this is what they recognize as the most important place to begin our time together. The students must be “sold” on why listening is an important aspect of communication.

“Why should I have to listen when they won’t listen to me?”, the lady asked me. I said, “You don’t have to, but if not you, who will”? “And if no one listens, it doesn’t matter what is said.”

“And if no one listens, we stay exactly where we see our country and world today.”

Listening is an art, a skill, a practice; like yoga and meditation. It’s hard. Very hard. There are places to learn how to listen. There are teachers. There are books. There are workshops. Listening well is one of the most powerful tools that exists to change lives, relationships and our world. If you were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where that was practiced, you automatically do it; if not you don’t and have to be taught how.

I ran across a poem that I want to share that answers the question as to why I might want to listen, and why it feels so good to be listened to. I wish I had access to this poem when I was asked the question of “why me?”

When Someone Deeply Listens To You

When someone deeply listens to you

it is like holding out a dented cup

you’ve had since childhood

and watching it fill up with

cold, fresh water.

When it balances on top of the brim,

you are understood.

When it overflows and touches your skin,

you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you

the room where you stay

starts a new life

and the place where you wrote

your first poem

begins to glow in your mind’s eye.

It is as if gold has been discovered!

When someone deeply listens to you

your barefeet are on the earth

and a beloved land that seemed distant

is now at home within you.

John Fox

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