Listening beyond the conversation

by Kristin on May 26, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by jordanfischer

This morning, Jason and I had would I would call a “good” meeting with the elementary school principal. Not great. Not inspiring or a huge relief. Just good.

“At least he seemed to be listening,” I said to Jason, as we walked home. “I think he heard us. That’s a start.”

Exactly. Listening is a start. In order for a meeting or conversation to cross over from “good” to “great,” the listening needs to be followed by a response—action, results, a change.

I have hope that our meeting this morning will eventually make that leap. In the meantime, it left me thinking  more about listening—why it’s important, and how often it falls short, even when listening appears to be happening.

The frustration of being listened to, without the followup

There’s no doubt that people deeply desire to be heard. I’d say that’s one of main principles I go back to again and again here on my blog—it’s right up there with “people want to know they’re not alone” (and, not surprisingly, the two go hand-in-hand). When people feel heard, they’re given hope. They feel less frustrated, more empowered. They feel like someone else is advocating for them, which frees them up to look out for others.

But do you know what I’ve discovered? That listening can be a show. And while it hurts to know you’re not being listened to, I think it can be even more frustrating to think you’re being heard, and to later find out that you weren’t. There was no followup, no action. The situation beyond the conversation didn’t change. It happens all the time in realms that matter deeply to us—in marriages, in conversations with our kids’ teachers, and as we try to address issues at work or church.

I’ll never forget the first time I encountered a situation like that. I was in my 20s and was trying to address a work-related frustration that was eating away at me. I decided to go to the “right person” to take care of matters in the “right way.” She was a wonderful listener! She seemed to hear what I was saying, she responded in affirming ways during our conversation and even repeated back to me what she heard me saying. Clearly she had gone to a few listening seminars in her day. When I left our meeting, I was hugely relieved. But then nothing changed. All of the scenarios and frustrations continued on, exactly as they had before. It was as if our conversation hadn’t even happened.

Listening without followup might just be a show

Maybe, in this age of counseling and therapy and every type of self-help book you can imagine, listening is becoming an act that is highly pushed and respected. We hear about it all the time. We know it’s a good thing. We’re gradually learning to shut up—to stop talking and thinking about what we’re going to say next, and to just give our ears and minds over to what someone else is saying. But maybe in our well-intended efforts to be good listeners, we’re more focused on putting on a good listening show than we are on the good followup show.

As I reflect on this, I know it’s true of me sometimes. Especially with my kids. I’m more intent on giving them my attention in the moment—turning my focus away from my writing or cooking or whatever, onto them—than I am on followup. It’s almost like I think the listening is just an exercise, a chance for my kids to let it all out so that they can move on.

Sometimes that’s the case, but usually there is more going on. They’re worried about a situation at school that I need to help them address. They want help fixing something in their room or planting something in the garden, and I need to actually put it on my to-do list and make it happen. Or maybe they’re trying to tell me that they feel like I’m being too impatient with them, or overly critical. Clearly, the first step is listening openly to what they’re saying. But it’s only the first step in a whole process toward making things better.

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  • A

    This post couldn’t be more timely for me. I have been going through this same frustrating thing in my own life too. This sentence in particular — “while it hurts to know you’re not being listened to, I think it can be even more frustrating to think you’re being heard, and to later find out that you weren’t.” I think I will have to blow it up and frame it or something. It’s very disrespectful, really. It means, “I will say what I think you need to hear to shut you up so you will go away and leave me alone, but really, I couldn’t care less about what you think about this.”

  • Kirstin

    “It’s only the first step in a whole process towards making things better.”

    What about when “better” isn’t really an option? How do we know when we’ve been heard if there’s no clear subsequent action or change that can follow the act of listening?

    My most painful experience of not-being-heard was when my mother left my father while I was in college. On the one hand I was happy that she’d finally found the courage (I had never believed she would) to take that step and extricate herself from a deeply toxic situation. On the other hand her decision left me in a tough place: my father was facing some big medical issues and needed help. Simply walking away (as my mother needed to do) didn’t feel like an option (for a variety of complicated reasons), and her departure made the burden on me that much heavier.

    I expressed a lot of anger and hurt–not out of the expectation that she’d change her mind, but out of a desire that she would recognize the difficult situation I found myself in and acknowledge the pain that her decisions (however justified) had created. But she could never do that–she would just repeat her conviction that the divorce would eventually prove to be the best thing for all of us.

    My mother was the sort of person who wanted to “make things better” if at all possible. I suspect that she couldn’t hear me because she assumed that the action that would best address my problem would be returning to my father (which wasn’t in fact what I wanted). Her hard-won commitment to, for the first time, putting her needs above those of other people, made it difficult for her to listen to, much less hear, the complex and multifaceted nature of the needs in play. “Yes, I know. I need to do this, and it has painful and burdensome consequences for you” would have been response enough for me.

  • Meredith

    It might be a cliche but it does ring true to what you are saying: actions speak louder than words.

    I experience this a lot at work and from my perspective, it’s all about appearances. People want to be appear to be great listeners, especially when it comes to certain issues or subjects, but that’s all it is – an appearance.

    At the same time, maybe we do, as you’ve suggested, focus so much on being a good listener (or at least, putting on a good listening show) that we literally don’t know how to help or take action. It’s almost as if we’re saying, “I did what I was supposed to – I listened and I listened well!” It’s as if we’ve put all our energy into praising the listening part that we’ve forgotten to focus on the part that happens next.

  • Ray Hollenbach

    Hi Kristin:

    Thanks for your post: it’s thought-provoking, and I think it points out one of the great failings of our 21st century North American culture. I’d like to suggest that within the Biblical view of life, listening and action cannot be separated, like soul and spirit: we haven’t really listened if we are not moved to action.

    In fact, James, the brother of Jesus, suggested that when we train ourselves to hear without doing we are, in fact, deceived. Seems to me there’s a whole lotta deception goin’ round.



  • Kristin T.

    A, that’s no fun—so sorry to hear you’re dealing with that. You’re absolutely right about the disrespect part: “It means, ‘I will say what I think you need to hear to shut you up so you will go away and leave me alone…’” It’s so dismissive.

    Kirstin, yes! I could write a completely different post on “when ‘better’ isn’t really an option,” as you put it. One of the few parenting books that has really impacted how I relate to my kids is called “How to Talk So Your Kids Listen, and Listen So Your Kids Talk.” Much of the book touches on the very sort of issue you’ve raised—the importance of respecting, acknowledging and validating our kids’ feelings without necessarily solving all their problems or changing the less-than-perfect situations we find ourselves in. What you *wish* your mom had said is absolutely a valid, healthy thing to long for.

    Meredith, I agree that appearances play a big role in all of this. It’s a wonderful thing, after all, to spend time with someone who appears to listen really well. Eye contact, responsiveness and affirmation are things we all crave, and people who are good at that are also good in interviews and cocktail parties. It just isn’t necessarily a lasting and deep response that amounts to much in the end.

    Ray, “deception” is an interesting way to think about it. In the process of this two-way conversation, it seems we are both deceiving others and ourselves. In terms of listening and action, this definitely seems right to me: “…we haven’t really listened if we are not moved to action.” Maybe we just have to keep in mind that “moving to action” doesn’t always happen immediately. The listening part is a process that can take some real time—we can’t always jump into the action.

  • CJ

    Ultimately, good listening is often most important in the midst of conflict and for all the therapy and other aspects of the age we’re in, we still aren’t comfortable with conflict. Can we say what we really think, without attacking others?

    I find it ironic that what we as adults so often preach to our kids (in full knowledge that modeling is more powerful than words) what we cannot do when we are in the adult world. Work it out. Make good choices. Calm down.

    Listening gives us the chance of walking in some one else’s shoes, that almost always changes our view of “reality”.

  • Sugar Jones

    I had a friend in high school that used to “uh-huh” the whole time she was listening. It bothered me back then and still does. I know people want to seem like they are “actively” listening, but it’s annoying.

    Action speaks so much louder than words.

  • Kristin T.

    CJ, “Can we say what we really think, without attacking others?” That’s a really good question. On one hand, it’s about the person who needs to say something—are they brave enough to be direct and sensitive enough to be loving. On the other hand, it’s also about the person listening—are they confident enough in who they are to handle something that seems contrary to them, and are they generally comfortable hanging out in grey areas. And yes, you’re right: We need to be better at modeling what “working it out” can look like in a positive, healthy way.

    Sugar, I’ve talked to people with that habit, before. You’re right—actions speak louder than words (even eye contact and facial expressions do too, I think).

  • The Modern Gal

    Sometimes I wonder if this is a result of our being oversaturated with social media and just media in general. There are so many messages coming our way that it’s hard to just listen to any of them — and the important ones get lost in the fray without any sort of follow up. I find myself guilty of pretending to listen without actually doing so fairly often, but at the same time I feel if I listened to everything, I would get so overwhelmed.

  • Kristin T.

    The Modern Gal, you make a great point regarding social media and other forms. When you think of the number of emails, Facebook messages and other social media interactions that are sitting out there at any given time, waiting for our attention, it seems pretty clear that we’ve gotten ourselves into a messy situation. There aren’t enough hours in the day to respond in the most cursory fashion, let alone with meaning, care and depth. I often leave communications hanging because I know I want to respond when I have the time to respond *right.* The problem is, that time often seems to never come. I think you’re right—we can’t listen to everything being communicated by every one. What we do need to do is focus on rich, deep, meaningful exchanges and followup with the handful of people that mean the most to us. We can’t afford to let the sheer number of our connections dilute the relationships that mean the most.