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Active Listening - A Life Skill

There is an old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This saying expresses the fact that often people do not follow their own advice. Every year, somewhere around the third day of school, I present the children with my modified version, “Do as I say and as I do.” When I ask for a volunteer to repeat back to me what I just said, about half the time the response mimics the original expression and not my modified one. I like it when I get this wrong answer here as it really drives home my point. The fact is that we have gotten too impatient to really listen anymore. One of the first things I always teach my kids is active listening.

This early in the year the kids in the 6 grade are still in what some of the older teachers call the “honeymoon period”. I, and the entire middle school experience, are sufficiently new enough to make things interesting for the kids, so they pay attention more easily. But I need to get all of them to focus and really pay attention so I shock them. I go into self-depreciatory mode.

Rapid fire I say, “I’m bald, I’m pasty white, I’m short.” And before any of the kids can comment, I circle around my face with my right hand and continue, “And this face is not even close to good looking. And I’ve looked pretty much the same since I was 18.” As they are wondering why I am beating up on myself so badly I hit them with the kicker, “But, when I was single, I dated a lot of very pretty women. How, you may ask, did I do this?” I smile at them, showing off my rather less than perfect teeth. “It certainly wasn’t my smile. In fact, nothing about my look had anything to do with it. The secret is just two simple words – I listen.”

“Too often when we are talking to someone, it is a one way street. While they are talking we are thinking of what we want to say next instead of really paying attention to what they are saying. Sometimes our minds just wander. I’m sure the whole time I’ve been talking, Carlos there has been mentally deciding which video game he is going to play when he gets home.” This gets a small laugh as Carlos nods his head in agreement.
“I don’t do this. Even if the person I am talking to is going on about makeup or fashion or anything else I usually find less than interesting, I find a way to get past it. I sit up straight and look at the person I am talking to with interest, not the creepy, stalker kind of interest, but genuine and sincere interest. This helps me to focus on what they are saying. And when they stop talking for a moment, I don’t jump in with something about me, or try to change the subject to something I want to talk about. Instead, I ask a relevant question, repeating part of their conversation, to get them to continue. Really? I might say, what is it about small dogs that makes you love them so much?”
By now some of them are catching on and sitting a little straighter and looking at me as I talk. “And the next time I see them I demonstrate that I was really listening. Hello Aubrey. Is your dog feeling any better? Now she is thinking that I must really have been listening to her and it’s true – I have. And Aubrey likes me more for making her feel important and respected.”

I scan the room for those who are still not getting it and pick one as I continue. “Cindy over there is like, ‘Eww, I don’t even like boys, who cares?’. Well Cindy, this is not just dating advice, this is a lifeskill. Try applying for a job one day and not remembering the name of the boss you want to hire you. Contrast that with your friend who not only correctly calls him Mr. Juarez, but also sends him an email later asking if his daughter Maria did well on that math test she was worried about. Who is he more likely to hire? The truth is that each and every one of us likes to feel important and really having somebody listen to us makes us feel that we matter.”

There are nods around the room and even a genuine seeming smile or two. “It sounds simple, and basically it is, but there are some problems with trying to actively listen. The first is that what we hear sometimes is not what was actually said. I don’t know how many times it took before I realized that whenever I said anything about my wife’s eating habits, she thought I was calling her fat. Our fears, insecurities, and emotions all color what we experience. And it only gets worse when we filter it through our memory. I was watching a crime show the other night where 6 different eye witnesses had six different versions of what happened. Nobody was lying and they all believed that what they said was the real way the events unfolded. All we can do is try our best to separate our emotions from our observation.

The second problem is that sometimes words have more than one meaning, or more than one word means the same thing. The English language has more of this problem than any other language. English is a really hard language to learn. And, to make it worse, we all speak in idioms. We say, What’s up? When we mean how are you? Bart Simpson says, Don’t have a cow, when he means, relax and don’t get upset.”