You Pickin’ Up What I’m Laying Down? The Lost Art of Active Listening

Philosophers Simon and Garfunkel got it right in their song The Boxer when they penned: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

I love music. But I have to admit that I’ve never been really good at  listening to song lyrics with an ear bent towards understanding. Rather, I let the beat pull me in, and I sing along with a simple assumption: SONGS MAKE NO SENSE.

For years I was convinced that the R.E.M. song Losing My Religion included the nonsense phrase “Let’s pee in the corner, let’s pee in the spotlight….” Yeah, I had no idea why the lyricists chose such a poignant song to express a rather silly sentiment. But I rolled with it until one tragic night while doing karaoke I found out that I was mistaken…much to the amusement of the two sober people in the bar.

When I first heard the Stones Beast of Burden, I struggled to understand why such a great band would passionately declare, “I’ll never leave your pizza burnin’…”. Even more confusing to me was how the Beatles could destroy the overall mood of their song Michelle by throwing in such inane lines as “Michelle, Ma Bell, some say monkeys play piano well, play piano well.”

Listening is an active sport.

Don’t fall into the trap of hearing what you want to hear and disregarding the rest. Active listening is an active sport. Don’t go through the motions of nodding like you have some idea of what the other person is saying unless you really do have a clue. Don’t simply say what you think others want to hear back. Don’t offer limp platitudes as a substitute for a thoughtful response.

If you struggle with active listening, try this the next time you’re called upon to be a sounding board:

  • If you’re face-to-face, establish eye contact. Words are not always the best source for gaining understanding. Body language rarely misleads. What you see is often more authentic than what you hear.
  • Free yourself from all distractions. We all think we multitask well. Which is a lie. We are capable of doing several simultaneous activities, most of them poorly. Don’t short the person talking  to you–or yourself–by entering into a listening situation when you’re not committed to full attention.
  • Seek clarity from the person talking. Some people talk in roundabout ways. In the process of talking, they find their words and their truths. You can foster clarity by asking questions like “Can you tell me more about that?” Or “Why do you feel that way?”
  • Rephrase what you are hearing. Many have a natural desire to skip to the end. We think we understand the other person because we have a grasp of their context and comprehend most of their words. We make assumptions to move things along. To make sure you’re not off base, try saying: “I want to make sure that I’m hearing you right. Are you saying…?”
  • Determine if you are being called upon to act. Many listening events are venting sessions where you are asked to be a sounding board. Offering advice during one of these times is not always helpful, heard, or desired by the other person. If you’re uncertain, ask this simple question: “How can I help?”

Ooo, ooo! My favorite Led Zeppelin song is on, All of My Love. “The muppet raged, the toast is naked again…”

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