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The best part about being a storyteller is that it requires a fair amount of listening to the unique perspectives and experiences of others. Whether it’s through scientific research, or trolling the Internet for expert opinions, interviewing interesting subjects—artists, inventors, athletes, entrepreneurs—or weighing different points of view, listening is key to producing well-informed writing to tell a compelling story.
For writers, listening is integral to our work—meaning that we are professional listeners by nature. But I can personally attest that it is a skill that does not always come naturally, but should rather be thought of as a practice in patience at the most primal and fundamental level. It is how humanity has recorded itself since the dawn of our species—though there will always be many conflicting points of views regarding certain events. So why is it then that for so many of us listening is one of the most difficult things to do?
If you are not a writer and it is not your job to listen and record stories, by no means do I underestimate your ability to perform this simple function with accuracy. But experience has taught me that even when we think we are listening, often we are not—especially when our mind-chatter anxieties and musings can drown out the person who is speaking. Developing a meditation practice has helped me to counter this dramatically. There is no shortage of studies that prove with regular meditation practice we are likely to develop empathy and compassion for ourselves and others.
While that’s wonderful thing, are good vibes enough to make for a good listener?
Mind clutter aside, we ought to consider the constant stream of information at our fingertips during every waking moment: Emails, texts, social media, fitness trackers (not to mention an app for just about everything) keep us on the pulse and constantly plugged in. How many times this week have you had a conversation with someone who was looking at their smartphone while you were talking? Sure, they nod and smile, agree or disagree, insert generic commentary where applicable—all of which appear on the surface as listening.
And whether they realize it or not, they’re convincing themselves that they’re listening, too, since this is what we have deemed as acceptable. Are we also willing to admit that we do it, too?
We may accept this listening behavior as the norm, since a large part of the way we share our stories now happens through our smartphones. Even when we’re not alone we’re still scrolling through feeds and photo albums, sharing what we assume the other person may not have seen or Liked yet. Or we’re scrolling out of habit or addiction—or for fear of missing out.
Why is it that for so many of us listening is one of the most difficult things to do?
The purpose of this article is not an anti-technology tirade suggesting that digital detox and a daily meditation routine are the solutions to solving bad listening habits. It is, however, to suggest that how we listen could use an upgrade. Bear in mind that despite having been told that remembering what people say is one of my strong suits, I am no perfect listener either. As soon as I’m off the clock, I can easily slip back into autopilot—nodding and smiling when my boyfriend comes home from work as I listen to the events of his day. Does this mean I am listening or not?
Of course I will assure the speaker that I am, despite that I involuntary interrupt them mid-sentence, allowing distractions to take hold: a song that plays over the stereo, a buzz of my iPhone, or pointing out how cute the cat looks (even though she always looks cute). How often are we really listening, free of distractions, fully digesting every bit of information we’re hearing? It is a struggle for all listeners of the modern era to stay fully present when their minds are in 16 different places, connected to multiple outlets, and plugged into everything.
Another example: the social gathering with friends. How often does it occur when you are out with a group of likeminded individuals, friends, coworkers, and you are interrupted mid-sentence by someone who blurts something out completely unrelated to what you were taking about, because they were likely just looking for some kind of ‘in’ to the conversation? I assure you it happens all the time. And I encourage you to watch for it the next time you’re out. Once you start catching, however, be forewarned: It becomes unsettling when you realize that this is actually normal modern human conversation. What’s worse is when you can begin to catch yourself in the act, too.
How we listen could use an upgrade.
So what then is considered GOOD listening? Well, active listening is defined as: A particular communication technique that requires the listener to provide feedback based on what they hear. Listening itself is the active process by which we make sense of and respond to what we hear.
Is it possible over the course of our evolution that as we hurry and race our way through life that this has seeped into the way we converse with others? Do we jump right in and assert ourselves because we’re always short on time and require a level of immediacy with just about everything that we do? Does our ego possess a burning desire to be heard, or is there a fear of our voice never being heard at all? Are we just anticipating for our turn to speak and crafting in our minds exactly what it is we are going to say?
It would seem that the idea of patience as a virtue has fallen by the wayside.
When put into real practice, we can all agree that listening to others enriches our lives exponentially. Our perspectives broaden and minds are blown—we may agree or disagree with someone’s opinion, but we find the conversation stimulating nonetheless. We must never shy away from soaking up new information, insight, and knowledge—whether it’s the origin of the universe, what it means to transcend, or whether or not being Vegan or Paleo is better for you. From teachers to sages, scholars, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers, bus drivers, police officers, you name it—opinions of others will always matter, despite your preferences and agendas. Do not limit yourself to your known circle of experts. Do not limit your capacity for the continued expansion of your mind.
Listening informs our decisions so that we can make choices for what is best for us, our families, our community, and our planet. But what starts to happen as we age and become governed by the ego is that we lose that curiosity, that hunger, to learn more. We become set in our ways, we think we may know enough to get by and be happy. So we stop listening, or we only listen to what we choose we want to hear. We stop paying attention and close ourselves off from possibilities and opportunities. The universe sends us glaring signs and we ignore them because we think we’ve figured it out. As you well know, nobody does—and maybe nobody ever will. But that is what life is all about: to search, to stay open, to receive, to love, to, to connect, to grow… And to listen.
Andrea Rice is a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, SONIMA, mindbodygreen, and a variety of online publications. Her teaching style is a blend of her love for music and intuitive movement, with emphasis on core strength. Connect with Andrea on Instagram and Twitter.