I’ve been thinking a lot about what “listening” really means.
The point of entry is the literal act of paying attention to the words another person says. But true listening is hearing what people are really saying, either through their words or, as often, in spite of what they’ve said.
Here are three stories to get into the multiple layers of listening.
One night, my 11-year-old daughter and I were standing in the kitchen. I looked at her and said “could you please open the fridge and get out the parmesan cheese?”
I turned back to chopping vegetables. 30 seconds later she was standing in the spot where she’d been, without any cheese.
When I asked her what was going on, it became clear that she simply hadn’t heard the words I was saying—her mind was somewhere else. She literally did not listen.
That’s OK, she’s only 11.
Dogs and COVID
The next morning, she and I took our dog out for a walk, and we ran into an older man coming out of his car with a dog we’ve never met before. The man seemed a bit hesitant at first, staying on his side of the car, but the dogs’ tails started wagging and I assumed everything was OK.
“She’s very friendly,” I said, referring to my dog.
“Oh it’s fine,” he replied, “and anyway, they don’t transmit COVID.”
My 15-year-old daughter has become a serious runner, and, at the start of the school year, she’d been running 6 or 7 days a week. This included cross country meets on Saturdays followed by 6+ mile runs on Sundays, only to start practice again for the week on Monday.
Three weeks into the season, she got injured. She’s spent the last two months trying to navigate the fine line between recovery and not dropping out of training.
We had multiple conversations about how best to manage the situation, and at various points my wife or I offered to talk to her coach, because we know it can be difficult for a high school kid to speak up for their own needs with adults.
Every time we made that offer, my daughter would resist or shut down.
Until finally, in that moment of silence, my wife said, “We’re not going to tell your Coach we don’t want you to run, and we’re not going to get in the way of you practicing. We just want to share with him what we’re seeing so we can all work together.”
Three levels of listening
The starting point for listening is simply hearing the words people say to us. This is harder than it sounds in our attention-grabbing, device-filled world. It is your version of “that person just asked me to get the Parmesan cheese.”
Beyond that, there’s the basic work of connecting the dots between what people are saying and what might really be on their minds. Outlier, non sequitur comments (“dogs don’t transmit COVID”) are a place to start: “he’s probably not worried about the dogs; he’s worried about himself.” While that particular connection may seem obvious, I’ve watched how literal my kids are in these situations and started to wonder how and when the entry-level skill of “don’t look for meaning just in the words that person said” gets developed. How often do we see the comic book thought bubbles above people’s heads when the speak? I know I was extremely literal for a long time, and that I often defended my non-listening with a version of, “well, if that’s what he meant, why didn’t he say it?” The miss was nearly always mine, not his, in these situations (let alone the extent to which that question is a wonderful expression of white male privilege….)
Finally, we get to the higher-level work: not only tracking both the words being said and the meaning that is unsaid, but finding a way to bring the unsaid into the conversation in a tactful and non-confrontational way. This is the art of shifting a discussion from what is being said to what has intentionally been left aside because it is too difficult to bring up.
This sort of reframing is where real connection and real breakthroughs come from. The experience of someone paying close enough attention that they say out loud the thing we were thinking, the fear that we were nurturing…this act makes a person feel seen in a profound way.
In the end, it is our undivided attention, and the expression of that attention, that are the greatest gifts we can give someone.