Real listening is the key to any successful relationship. Yet it's so rare. Parent-child relationships are frequently destroyed by withdrawn, distracted, disinterested or self-absorbed parents. The same is true of marriages and friendships. People often don't pay that much attention to those they claim to really care about -- their children, their parents, their spouses, their friends.
We usually can't wait for someone else to finish (in fact we usually don't!) so we can tell them our fascinating (and more important) news or our interesting insight.
One night in college I stayed up late talking to my roommate. That itself was nothing out of the ordinary but on this particular occasion I decided to really open up and make myself vulnerable. I revealed some very personal and life-defining stories. When I finally finished talking, I waited for her response. All I heard was the soft sound of her snoring!
I was devastated. But not only did it show extreme lack of sensitivity on her part, I later realized that I was also to blame. I was so caught up in the telling of my story that I didn't recognize I had lost my audience. If she had thought about my needs, she would have made the effort to stay awake (or at least informed me when that was no longer a possibility!), and if I had thought about her needs I would have perhaps trimmed the tale, checked in to see how she was doing, requested a more active response.
Fortunately this was a relationship that didn't last beyond the first year of college (not because of the story!) so the long-term consequences were minimal. But similar scenarios are repeated every day in the relationships that do count - between spouses, parents and children, employers and employees.
It's not that we're incapable of remembering the details of that story our spouses told us; it's just that we've decided it's not really important.
We're certainly capable of truly listening to someone else; it's just that our own lives and psyches are so much more real to us. It's not that we're incapable of remembering the details of that story our spouses told us; it's just that we've decided it's not really important.
In order to have successful relationships, we need to make the needs and interests and pain of others as real as our own. We need to find their lives fascinating.
My husband loves to explore the origin of words. (I even got him an etymological dictionary for his birthday - and he loved it!) I, on the other hand, well? couldn't care less. But because he's interested, I listen. And I respond (at least I try). And not just with a grudging, eye-rolling patience, but with real interest. Because I care about him. Because I'm interested in him. And because that's how I want him to respond to me when I bring up one of my favorite topics.
Real listening also enhances and deepens the relationship between parents and children - even though no matter how hard we try to listen to our adolescent children they will always claim we just don't understand them. Many parents don't know who their kids' friends are, what they enjoy, where they struggle, who they really are. Sometimes they don't know their own children because they cling to an image they've created and ignore the flesh and blood responses of their offspring. After enough unsuccessful attempts at communication, the children eventually stop trying. As the children get older this situation becomes more difficult to repair.
The mother of my friend, Sharon, was always distracted when she was growing up. Unhappy with herself and her marriage, she had a depressed and defeatist view of the world and little time or energy left for Sharon. Now older, calmer and wiser, she wants to renew her relationship with her daughter. "Mom," Sharon sadly said to her, "there's no relationship to renew."
Getting to know another human being requires true empathy. It means getting out of yourself and trying to understand someone else. Real relationships are created by finding others interesting and exciting -- hearing them the way you would like to be heard.
Paradoxically the more we take ourselves out of the equation, the more we will actually shine in the other person's eyes. I've been told that it can be the secret to a good job interview -- to ask and listen instead of only replying and talking. And it can be a great motivator for employees, even more effective that those Lucite plaques.
Being a good listener expands our world; we become a part of the lives of all who cross our path and we are all enriched. The opposite is unfortunately also true. Being a poor listener contracts our world; it limits our relationships and ultimately leaves us alone.
I used to love the line in Oscar Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Ernest, "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train." A little self love is a good thing; too much self-absorption destroys us. Living in a world where we are the center may initially feel very gratifying but is the path to loneliness. If all we can focus on is our own life, it gets a little boring indeed!