In 1985, Mother Teresa spent an hour meeting with President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy at the White House. After their meeting, reporters asked Reagan what he had said to Mother Teresa. Reagan replied, “When you are with Mother Teresa, you listen.” I like that! Reagan understood the importance of listening, especially when in the presence of the little nun who had captured the imagination of the world because of her love and care for the least of these. He showed great respect to Mother Teresa by simply listening to what she had to say.
Listening is something of a lost art — something that is not easy to do. Most people would probably say that listening is the opposite of talking. I wish that were true but I don’t think it is. When we have conversations with others, if we are honest, we are not listening as much as we are waiting to talk. In reality, waiting to talk is really the opposite of talking for most people.
This week I watched an episode of The Voice, the reality singing competition on NBC. What I found interesting was the format they used for selecting the contestants — something called “The Blind Audition.” With their backs turned to the contestants, the four judges listened to the singers without the benefit of any visual references or clues. This kind of format forced the judges to tune in to subtleties in voices that can otherwise be easily missed. That’s just one way to improve listening skills.
Another way to improve our listening skills is by realizing that listening is something that goes beyond words or the sound of a person’s voice. We can become better listeners by paying attention to body language and movements that can give us insight into the other person’s emotional state. Body language gives context to spoken words and can give deeper meaning to those words. We can easily miss those clues if we are more focused on what we are going to say next rather than on what the other person is saying and how they are saying it.
One way to acknowledge that we are actively listening is by leaning in or toward the person who is speaking. That’s a great way to show them that they have our undivided attention. And, instead of immediately seizing an opportunity to get our two cents in, try waiting a few seconds. Even a few seconds of silence are like building white space into the conversation and allows you to breath and to think before replying. And, if necessary, summarize what you heard the other person say and repeat it back to them. This reinforces both listening and understanding and helps to ensure that you have indeed listened.
We can improve our listening skills if we will make it a point to stop waiting to talk while others are talking. Good listening is hard work but well worth the effort because listening gives us deeper insight into the lives of the people around us. And, listening is also a great way to affirm the value of others. There are not many things that can make others feel that they are important as when we take a genuine interest in them and actively listen to what they have to say. So, stop waiting to talk and start listening. You’ll be glad you did, and so will others.