What You Say? Learning to Listen Amidst All the Shouting

I’m a terrible listener.

I can talk through and around most any topic—even more so when I don’t know what I’m talking about—but to listen, to stop my constant inner monologue and focus on the person in front of me and absorb his or her verbal and non-verbal messages, to allow myself to be fully present with another person in that sacred space of sharing, well, yeah, I suck at it.

Unfortunately for me, every essential activity I take part in requires that I listen well.

Writing. Playing music. Raising children. Maintaining a marriage. Keeping a job. This whole mindfulness endeavor that I insist on torturing myself with. Yeah, everything essential that I do demands that I shut up and listen when my whole life up to this point has been focused on learning how to shout over everyone else.

Dammit.

In his On Being interview with Krista Trippett, Dave Isay—the founder of StoryCorps—discusses his own ongoing struggle to becoming a better listener. Listening is the ultimate act of compassion, of justice, of honoring the person who is speaking. The stories we tell each other—provided we stop ourselves long enough to listen—are the true heritage of our shared existences. These stories are, at the end, all that truly matter.

And the voice, as Isay reminds us, contains the soul. If you want to know someone, listen.

The obvious but impossible challenge is to remind myself of this. I have zero insight into how. I can barely remind myself to be present in any given moment, let alone to share that moment with someone else in an open and authentic and vulnerable (you can’t listen without being vulnerable) communication.

I suppose that, like most difficult but worthwhile endeavors, awareness is the first step. I have to believe that becoming a better listener is hard-wired into our aging process. That the years will gradually yield to us the wisdom needed to talk less and hear more, to shut the hell up. Biology will impair us to such a point that we have to slow down, have to quiet ourselves, have to be where we are with the ones who matter most to us.

Learning to talk takes only a few short years, but learning to listen takes a lifetime.