The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers. ~Thich Nhat Hanh
In a recent episode of Kelly Corrigan’s PBS program, Tell Me More, the topic was listening with dignity. Kelly interviewed Ai-Jen Poo, a domestic worker organizer. Their fascinating conversation, shared here, reminds us that domestic workers are the people who make all other work possible. They’re the health care, childcare, and domestic workers who support us all day, every day. Kelly and Ai-Jen were talking about how these lower-paid workers are, to a great extent, paid to listen to us, our suffering and pain and our myriad needs – not just hearing, but listening with care and respect.
Standardized testing in grade schools has morphed into something different than when I was young, but I recall being pretty good in the listening comprehension portion of the test. Over the years, I feel being a good listener has become a rare quality. It’s not only just listening but how you listen that truly matters.
Most of us listen to answer.
C’mon, admit it: while someone is talking, you’re thinking of your response, a snappy retort, ready to trot out your experience, opinion, or thoughts. We barely let them get the words out before we defend, contradict, outdo, or compare. Our thoughts wander or we create in our minds that which we want to share when the speaker pauses, and we’re afraid we’ll forget a clever tidbit or witty zinger, so it gushes forth. You know you’ve done this! I’ve done it repeatedly!
How we listen is just as important as if we listen. In the old days (groan), a good listener was a sponge, completely silent, absorbing every spoken morsel. To show respect, we’d parrot back everything we thought we heard. Those days are no longer. Now a good listener plays a more active role in listening by asking questions along the way and by offering support, interest, encouragement, and a safe environment for the speaker.
Active listening provides dignity.
How we listen shows our dignity to others. Here are some ways to enrich conversations and listen more fully:
~instead of looking for mistakes or silly statements, instead of fixating on formulating a witty or “I’m smart” response, listen with a curious and open mind. You do this by letting go of your own thoughts and opinions and just letting go of ‘me.’ Focus on them!
~let the speaker finish speaking. Don’t interrupt or share your opinion, your experience, or what you know about the subject being discussed. Let there be a pause between what they share and your response. If you’re afraid you’ll forget what you want to say in response, oh well. If it’s good, you’ll remember eventually. Keep the focus on them.
~keep eye contact with the speaker. Instead of looking over their shoulder or having your attention drawn to what’s happening nearby, stay with them in all senses.
All of these activities involve being present. Listen with your whole body, which involves your facial expressions, body language, and any other nonverbal cues. This is sometimes hard to do when we’ve trained ourselves to be multi-taskers, handling conversations while folding laundry, making dinner, exercising, or fiddling with our phones.
Identify how you could improve your listening and commit to implement those changes into a week of conversations to see what happens. Okay, try it for at least one day.
You know the value of being heard. It makes you feel like the special person you are and that people care about you. Be that for another. Listening with dignity shows the speaker that they matter to you and that you care enough to offer your time and full attention to them.