Eight people work in my apartment building – doormen and porters along with the super. (No white gloves or top hats – I promise.) I have gotten to know them all over the past thirteen years.
Recently, one of them explained a wide array of interpersonal difficulties fed by fractured communication that is playing out in this small building. An innocuous request I made landed me right in the middle of this mess, and it prompted him to share a detailed explanation of the backstory.
I had put this person in an uncomfortable position and I felt terrible. I apologized and promised to never do that again. And I will keep that promise.
Knowing me well, he simply wanted me to know what I had stepped into. He further explained why he could have this conversation with me rather than others in the building: “You’re different – you listen to us.”
I felt honored … and I also felt very, very sad. Part of the sadness was his perception that other residents would not be receptive to listening.
Choosing to Listen
I have an early memory about listening that took place when I was in grade school. My mother had come home from work and was reading the newspaper. I had so much to tell her from my day at school (I loved school!!) and I was chattering away about things that were important to me.
She nodded and hummed an “um hum” now and again while continuing to read. I may have been young, but I was not stupid. I stopped and asked her a question. In the silence that ensued, she finally put down the paper, apologized, and asked what I had said.
But the hurt was done – and I have not forgotten it. I was not important enough. The paper was soon raised again.
I shared that story in a training session I delivered that focused on elevating the customer experience. We were discussing the power of being heard. One of the people in the session came to me afterward and said he recognized himself in my mother’s behavior.
His work kept him traveling for months at a time and, when he was home, he just wanted to sit in his favorite chair and relax. His young son would try to talk with him, but he pushed him away with a response of frustration.
Simply hearing my story was enough to bring about a resolve to change. He had never considered how hurtful it could be to be ignored in this way, and promised he would always make time to listen going forward – and to listen well. I am hopeful that he did just that.
There is listening with half an ear while you formulate your response to a conversation that is still unfolding or think about your list of things to do as soon as you can break away – and then there is listening well.
In the latter scenario, we listen to understand and we respond respectfully. Judgment is suspended. As we give our attention, we give ourselves to another. And when we do, the person talking feels safe enough to share more. Listening well is done heart to heart.
“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.” – Simon Sinek
Alan Alda was quoted as saying,
“Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.”
That is such a beautiful thought – and that is what listening well enables. Building on that from the perspective of the recipient, I believe being heard opens the door to transformation.
There is a deep comfort in being heard. It soothes the soul. It allows us to better understand ourselves and each other. It validates our human worth.
It is a gift to have the experience of being heard. Is it one you are willing to give?