Listening-are you good at it?


I was thinking about listening, true reflective, empathic listening, and wanted to share a few quotes and thoughts on the subject. While I’ve always considered myself to be a good and nonjudgmental listener, having done it professionally as an estate planning lawyer, planned giving professional and consultant for over 30 years, I still have nagging doubts from time to time about the truth of my feelings about being a good listener. I still get lots of opportunities to listen, and I cherish each and every one of them.

I wanted to share the following quotes from a very good book on the subject of listening, and one that I blogged on in a previous blog where I considered books that were worth reading. I’ve quoted from the first edition of this book, but you should know that it is now out in a second edition, which came out in 2009. The following quotes struck me as the heart of listening:

“Listening, as we’ve seen, takes effort.  But sometimes that effort is prejudiced: our own internal sensitivities filter what we hear and what we say.  Those sensitivities take the form of preconceived expectations and defensive emotional reactions.” Nichols, Michael P., Ph.D., (1995), The Lost Art of Listening, New York: The Guilford Press (hereafter, “The Lost Art of Listening”).

“A lot of us have difficulty listening when it means having to sit still and share someone’s uneasiness or uncertainty.  We have to say something quick to make the anxiety go away.” The Lost Art of Listening.

“Experience has taught me to listen not only to what people say but also for what they’re not saying and to wonder why.” The Lost Art of Listening.

“Concerned and empathic listening is the greatest gift you can give to help the other person soothe her feelings.” The Lost Art of Listening.

“The ability to listen rests on how successfully we resist the impulse to react emotionally to the position of the other.” The Lost Art of Listening.

“Genuine listening involves a brief suspension of self.  You won’t always notice this because it’s reflexive and taken for granted and because in most conversations we take turns.  But you might catch yourself rehearsing what you’re going to say next when the other person is talking.  Simply holding your tongue while the other person speaks isn’t the same as listening.  To really listen you have to suspend your own agenda, forget about what you might say next, and concentrate on being a receptive vehicle for the other person.” The Lost Art of Listening.

“When the people I know talk about feelings–what’s really on their minds, what they’re excited about, what’s troubling them–they want to be listened to and acknowledged, not interrupted with advice or told that someone else had a similar experience.  They want listeners who will take the time to listen and acknowledge what they’re saying, not immediately turn the focus to themselves.” The Lost Art of Listening.

“One of the most common consequences of failing to be sensitive to other people’s motivating expectations is giving them unwanted advice.” The Lost Art of Listening.

This last quote slapped me square in the face with a wet rag of reality.  It sometimes is simple for estate planners and others to launch into sharing war stories, past successes, anecdotes, recommendations and advice without first considering whether that is what the person either wanted, needed, or was ready for.

It can be quite difficult to temper the impulsive desire to “help” with the need first to listen.  These quotes generally remind us all that quite often we are subconsciously attempting to fix or minimize our own anxiety instead of focusing on the person talking.

Many times advice is unwanted at the time that the giver chooses to impart it (which is too often at the outset of the conversation), because most of us are far more comfortable giving advice than we are with really listening (which can be painful).

We all too often believe that the best way to make someone feel comfortable is to demonstrate our knowledge and experience.  However, while the opportunity to expound on that which we know may make us feel better and more comfortable (and while we are talking, we don’t have to delve into the person’s emotions or our own), we may not be making the person feel any better or any more comfortable with us.

Okay, you say. We could be better listeners. But how? The following quote from a book on psychiatric interviewing may hold the key:

“The next logical question is, “How does one convey expertise effectively during an initial interview?”  The answer lies primarily not in what we tell the patient but in what we ask the patient.  It is the quality of our questions, not the quantity of our words, that generally convinces a patient that the clinician knows something that might help.” Shea, Shawn C., M.D. (1998), Psychiatric Interviewing: The Art of Understanding (2nd Ed.), Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co.

Listening, true reflective listening, gives us the opportunity to think objectively about the person’s situation and gives us a unique perspective that has value to that person; it truly is a gift to that person. It is the questions that we ask that may truly reflect whether and how well we’ve been listening to them.

I’ve concluded that I need to redouble my efforts to be a better listener. The good news is that listening is a skill that can be improved with self-awareness and conscious effort, which I find comforting. I vow to never stop trying to be a better listener.

What about you? Are you a good listener? I’m listening.

About lpaulhoodjr

I am an inactive lawyer who practiced almost 20 years as a tax and estate planning lawyer. Today, I am the Director of Planned Giving for The University of Toledo Foundation. I am the co-author of four books, the sole author of another book and a frequent speaker and writer on estate planning, planned giving and business valuation.
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