I spend a good portion of my day listening to people explain how losing the ability to hear has impacted their lives. From this, I’ve learned a few things. First, that we are social creatures who desire connections with the people around us. And second, that this connection often comes from listening to spoken language and the nuances that accompany it; small yet revealing utterances, almost indistinguishable intonations that can indicate sarcasm, the drop of a voice revealing something sacred, and of course, one of my favorites, laughter.
With the loss of these sounds comes sadness and isolation, and in many cases a new found skill of listening. Hearing and listening are two separate, yet connected things. I can hear that someone is speaking to me, I may look at them, but I may not be listening to them at all. So when someone loses their hearing, their listening ability often improves, in an effort to find meaningful information in the most limited auditory context.
Listening is something that many of us do poorly. While someone is speaking, we retain around 25% of what they have said. And in a world of smart technology, far too many conversations happen while one participant is aimlessly moving their thumb over images of far away places.
Below, I’ve listed some reminders of how to be a good listener, and how to communicate when you want to be heard. It doesn’t take much, and can improve the relationships you have with those who are most important.
STEP ONE: SET THE STAGE
My husband has a nickname for me. It is Buzz Aldrin. He started calling me this after I kept “buzzing” like a bee at his ear with questions, my life worries, the next vacation etc., all while his head was about to hit the pillow at night. Don’t be like me: If you want to have a conversation and be heard, ask first. Find a quiet room, put down your phones, turn off the television, and make an effort to stay focused on the moment. Ask the person you want to talk to if now is a good time to talk. If they say no, respect that, and ask them when a good time might be.
STEP TWO: LOOK
Look at the person you are talking to, and not just their face. Look at their hands, shoulders, feet and eyebrows. We reveal so much not in what we say, but in how our body moves while we say it. Looking at someone in the eyes reassures them that you care about what they are saying. Try looking at a person with “new eyes,” as if you have never seen them before. Show up to the conversation with no judgment about how the person will or will not act, what they will or will not say. See your conversation partner as they truly are in that moment.
STEP THREE: DON’T TALK
As a clinician, I’ve been instructed to speak less and listen more. This is a lot easier said than done. Don’t presume you know what someone is going to say, or fill in a bit of silence with meaningless chatter because you are uncomfortable. And on that topic, if you want to be heard, think of what you want to say. This way, your words carry weight and meaning. My brother, stuck in between two loud sisters, fell into the role of the quiet one at home. When he spoke, we were silent. And what he said was usually by far the most hilarious thing we had heard in weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good chatter box—but if you fall into this category, realize a lot of what you say will not be heard.
STEP FOUR: ASK QUESTIONS
On the flip side, sometimes, not talking enough means you are stuck in your head analyzing what the other person has said without truly understanding their meaning. If it is not clear, ask. Repeat what you thought you heard, leave room for explanation.
STEP FIVE: PRACTICE
With all the chaos in our day-to-day life, it is easy to forget to listen to the seemingly mundane sounds. The clock ticking on the wall, water hitting the basin in a kitchen, your floor boards squeaking as your feet touch the ground in the morning, leaves rustling in the trees, and the click of a light switch. Allow yourself time each day to identify and pay attention to these soft sounds. As you type your next email, focus in on the sound of your fingertips hitting the keys. By reminding your brain to listen to the small sounds in your world, you will strengthen your ability to catch the cues in speech that help you truly connect and understand the people you love.