One late afternoon following a whirlwind of errands, I walked into my house to hear the phone ringing. It was my friend Lydia, upset over an argument with her husband. My usual approach is to offer advice, no holds barred. I tend to be a "fixer," compelled to make things right. But this time, exhausted from chores, I simply pulled off my coat, sat down in a chair and tuned in to my friend's frustration and sadness. Without the distraction of judgment or the desire to quell her pain, I stayed wholly present while she talked. Eventually Lydia's despair eased and we said our goodbyes. The next day she phoned to thank me. "I'm so grateful for the way you helped me through this," she said.
At first I was surprised. After all, I had done nothing except be there for her. But after I had my own venting session with another friend later that evening, I realized that my focused silence had some merit. In fact, most relationship experts agree that talk is cheap; it's listening that's rare and valuable. It enables you not only to hear what the other person is saying, but also to gain insight into her thoughts and feelings. And for the speaker, that level of understanding translates into concern and respect.
Unfortunately, listening isn't as easy as it sounds. Thanks to schedules filled to the brim with family, work, and social commitments, multitasking has become the m.o. for the masses. And I'm as guilty as the next guy -- my fatigue may have been the only thing stopping me from folding laundry or checking my e-mail while Lydia talked that afternoon.
Another barrier to listening is our wiring: Most of us take in only about half of what's being said during a conversation, according to the International Listening Association, a Falls River, Wisconsin, organization dedicated to the study and development of listening skills. Research shows that we speak at 125 to 150 words per minute, yet think at 500 words a minute. So with nearly 400 words of thinking time available to us each minute that we're listening, drifting off is a pretty natural reaction.
While it can be tough to focus at times, it's a skill worth cultivating. With a little practice -- employing the techniques on the next page -- you can become a better listener.