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Breakthrough: Learning to Listen

Making a habit of thoughtful listening helped me to help others.

Talking and Listening matters.
Talking and Listening matters.

I have a habit of being self-involved.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Leo. Maybe because I’m the oldest in my family. Maybe it’s because I’m really a jerk.

Who knows.

I love to talk about myself to anyone who will listen. If someone expresses a thought, I need to express one too. If someone tells a story, my brain is queuing up the next yarn I’m going to spin. Can’t stop won’t stop when it comes to sucking all the oxygen out of the room with my thoughts.

One day, someone did stop me.

I was in a meeting at work. The discussion was on the implementation of new software, and the room was divided on the method that should be used to get it up and running. One of the leaders of the project was talking, and instead of listening to her, all I could think about was making my next point. The second she took a breath, I saw my opening and started talking. She put up her hand and said, “Please, let me finish before you start. If you will just listen to me, you might find that we actually agree more than we disagree.”

I was immediately quiet. I let her words sink in. Was it possible I was missing good information because I was so busy planning and speaking constantly? Did I always look like an idiot who didn’t listen in meetings? For the rest of the session, I stayed silent. At the end, I walked over to my colleague to apologize and ask her if I had a habit of interrupting.

“Yes, you do tend to want to speak more than listen,” she said. “I actually understand that. You’re smart and you do have good ideas. But it’s hard sometimes to be in meetings with you because I’m not sure you’re really hearing me.”

I thanked her for being honest with me. That’s when I realized, I needed to change my ways.

I decided I needed to create a game for myself. Whenever someone was talking, I was going to do all I could to focus. No phone, no distracting thoughts. I was going to treat every sentence that someone else was saying as sacred. I promised myself that whenever someone finished speaking, I would ask if they were done or if they had anything else to add before sharing my thoughts.

My little game worked.

It was hard for the first week. I kept catching myself starting to think of responses while people were talking, and I would mentally reel myself back into the moment. It was a complete mindfulness challenge to be fully present with others and just listen without plotting my next speech.

By listening to others, and I know this sounds silly, I actually started to hear them in new ways. I could hear the emotion in their voices. I began to read situations differently, and reacting with more empathy and understanding through listening. I started to become more curious about other people, so that when I did speak, I asked more questions, trying to learn more about them and the issues that mattered to them.

One joyful benefit of concentrating on developing an intentional listening habit was that I began a new hobby of networking people to opportunities. By listening to student interns, I was able to recommend them to colleagues for paid positions since I now knew so much about them and their aspirations. In problem-solving situations, I could rely on new sources I had listened to who had creative ways to find answers. I became more aware of special moments in the lives of my co-workers, employees, even my friends. I moved from away from being completely self-involved to becoming humanity-involved.

All of this because I finally shut my mouth and listened.

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