The other day I got into a discussion with some of my buddies. Well, more of a game than a discussion. We had one main question :
If you had to lose one major sense ( sight, taste, smell, touch, and hearing for those of you needing a little refresher ), which would you choose ?
That’s a tough little question.
Never taste a medium rare steak again.
Never see a sunset over a lake.
Never smell some fresh roasted coffee.
Never touch – a friend, a wife, a parent.
Never again hear a Bob Dylan ballad.
It’s hard to decide which of those to cut from your life. I am pretty sure I landed on losing taste, not because I’d enjoy it, but because losing the rest would suck a lot more.
And then I was reminded of a few conversations I’ve had and books I’ve read and came to a slightly different conclusion. It’s more of a functional observation than a reasoned-out decision :
a lot of us, myself included, functionally live without the sense of hearing.
What I mean is this : we have ears and we hear, but do we really listen ?
Lend an Ear
I wrote a post earlier about communication. It was focused on working through Orwell’s Essay on Politics and the English Language. And in case you didn’t read it, or the main point was buried in my lacklustre writing, I was trying to say : AUTHENTIC AND THOUGHTFUL COMMUNICATION IS IMPORTANT.
That article was much more theoretical and expositional. I justify it because it’s important for us to think through standards of communication. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not too quick to follow advice when I don’t know where it’s coming from. If you’re like me in that way, be a keener and read that post and learn from Orwell. Better yet, just read his essay.
According to me, and a few people smarter than me, communication is having something to say and the ability to say it in a way that others understand. But, that’s not everything. Communication is way more than just speaking. Speaking is like the container your Thai Take-Out comes in. It’s important, but it’s not everything.
There’s all that non-verbal, visual communication, and then body language, etc etc etc.
I am no expert in any of that. And so I have nothing to say.
But, I am learning that one massive aspect of communication is listening.
Whatever sort of communicating is going on, listening might be one of the most important aspects to the whole thing. How many times have you been watching a tv show, and zoned out by looking at your phone, and totally missed what was going on ? How many times has that same thing happened when you’ve been out with your friends ?
This post focuses on that – what listening is and what it means for communication ( and maybe our relationships ). So instead of focusing on what you can say that will help communication, we’re going to focus on saying a lot less. It’s going to be broken up into three sections, each with their own new word invented by yours truly :
- Interest vs Input
- Listening and Relationships
There’s the new word, connectication. There’s no definition yet – and Meriam Webster is still out whether it’ll get added to the dictionary, but it suits my purpose. Actually, I take that back. There is a definition, but it’s more of a story.
It involves me, and my wife ( she was my fiancée at the time ). We were out for a walk on some of Toronto’s back streets in late July. We had just left the pub and our talking and laughing continued through the streetlight illuminated streets. Sitting down on the curb in front of our soon-to-be new apartment, my fiancée got quiet.
Part of the silence was the proverbial cold-feet, and some of it was legit concern.
Her quietness turned into glassy eyes and a few tears. She was afraid. “I’m not afraid to marry you,” she sniffled.
“What are you afraid of?”
“You don’t listen to me.”
And I thought I did. So I proved it. I listed out, almost verbatim, everything going on in her life and what she was up to. I told her she was the most important person to me on earth and that everything going on in her life was significant to me.
“No.” she said. “You don’t understand me.”
And that was the kicker. I could list out everything – but I didn’t know the girl behind it all. I didn’t understand the feelings behind all the activities and jokes. I knew a bunch of facts about her, but I didn’t know her.
And I share this, despite how junky it makes me seem, because it’s really the only way I know how to define connectication.
I had to learn that communication is way more than knowing about someone – it’s about knowing them. It’s more than staying out at pubs and telling stories and laughing until they close; it’s more than simply knowing what the other person aspires to be or the obstacles in their life; and it’s more than assuming because you have the facts you understand them. Communication is a lot less about being able to articulate what the person is or where they’re at, and a lot more about making an alliance with them.
Communication is about understanding. It’s about connection. And it’s all wrapped up in listening.
That was a significant blow to my pride. Sometimes we need that – we need to know we don’t have it all figured out. It’s how we grow .
The first part to draw out of communication and listening is that it is more than just hearing. It’s active and deep. My listening was more accumulating knowledge; what she needed was connection. And everyone is like her. We all want connection. The accumulation of knowledge about someone is sorta surface level. Connecting and understanding is the depth. That’s what connectication is.
Interest Versus Input
This next section is really just an extension to the above.
After I learned of my mishaps, I needed to learn tools to change. So, what is the tool to understand someone ? It’s simple.
To get to know someone and to be able to genuinely listen to them, you need to ask them questions. And not annoying questions, but thoughtful ones. Ones where you need to think before you speak, like we all learned from Bambi. These questions are about listening to the other person’s answers and thoughts, and assessing how to get to know more. It’s not about cutting them off to express your own thoughts – it’s not just waiting for your turn to talk.
And that’s where this versus comes from, Interest Versus Input.
Interest in the person, their ideas, and where they’re coming from up against your own input into the situation.
I was ( and mostly still am ) abysmal at this. Not out of lack of love for others, but out of lack in skill. One of my favourite things in life is to sit and talk with people – but it turns out I was mostly good at talking at people. My questions were mostly focused on getting to a point where I could share my opinion. Making this change, the change of taking an interest in another person over giving my input has been both amazing and challenging.
Interest helps questions to flourish. But it was challenging to me because I didn’t know the right questions to ask. And when I first learned them, I felt like a machine repeating taught phrases, thinking the conversation was awkward.
And it turns out there aren’t really lists of right and wrong questions to ask. There are some general ones ( I’ll list them below ), but they’re not the gold standard. The gold standard comes from what I said above : pay attention to the person and what they say, process it, and thoughtfully ask another question.
The questions that allow another person to open up and express themselves are personal. Not as in, “tell me all your deep darks,” personal; just tailor made to the current conversation.
Again, I am still learning this, and am a major rookie, but I’m trying.
Here are some questions that will help you have good conversations and allow you to connect and understand whoever you’re talking with ( these are the tools that help get into conversations ) :
- What do you mean by that ?
- Can you give me an example of that ?
- How did you come to understand that ?
- What makes you feel that way ?
- What else ?
These are general questions that will help connect. It’ll feel weird at first, it does for me still. I have a print out I carry with me that reminds me to ask questions and what good questions are.
The main point though, is take an interest in the people you are talking to, and maybe delay offering your input a bit. That is what makes up the new word for this section : Interput. And the interest part of the word comes before the input part. Because your goal is to take interest before giving input. That’ll change your communication.
Listening and Relationships
This last section is the result of the above. If you try to understand someone and take a genuine interest, your relationships are going to change, they’re going to be real. And so, the brand new word for this section is : real-ationships. You can use that one if you want.
My experience here is only about a year or two in the making. But the results are great. I thought my relationship with my wife couldn’t get any better – but it has. Same with my friends or coworkers or anyone.
Listening and questions are like legal steroids for your relationships. They’re going to grow and get stronger. The main difference is that there’s no real downside ( like steroids have ). It does take time though. Even if you take steroids, you still need to put in the hard work to get the maximum growth. The same goes for your relationships and interest and questions.
I’ve told a handful of my close friends that this is something I’m working on. And they’ll let me know if I’m asking good questions or if I’m talking too much. It’s my communication workout regime. They’re like my coaches and personal trainers. The feedback is always important.
Realistically, this part of the post should be summed up in a challenge :
Take the time to connect with your friends and understand them and measure the change in your relationship.
Wrapping It Up
This got a bit more personal than I expected, but maybe that too is part of communication. Listening is a massive part of communication and genuine listening is not the easiest thing to do. It’s active and purposeful.
Real listening is centred on connection ( not just knowledge ). Listening is being able to ally with someone, not just articulate what they say.
Real listening is also centred on having an honest interest in the person. It involves asking questions, tailor made questions, to understand people more deeply. It also involves the patience to let others speak before giving your input.
Real listening will change your relationships.