We might listen to people just to be polite. We might listen to gain some advantage, or gain knowledge we can use against the speaker. We might listen to find a weakness so we can rebut the speaker’s argument. Those are a few examples of self-centred reasons for listening to others, but too often we don’t really listen at all.
I read a book many years ago titled Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps. I don't believe any of these things are gender based. Some of the reasons we don't listen are:
1. We think that ‘to listen’ means ‘to agree’ with what is being said.
2. We already know the answer to a problem and can’t wait to reveal it.
3. We are afraid if we listen we might come to agree and have to change.
4. We have to win every argument because we lose face when we lose an argument.
5. We have slipped into the habit of letting our thoughts wander to other things.
6. We are too busy thinking up what we are going to say as soon as we get the chance.
These reasons are all influenced by our culture’s obsession with competition, which has us trying to impress others or trying to be better than others.
Equality-based listening comes with an awareness of the tremendous influence our competitive culture has on human relationships and tries to counter it. Equality-based listening has to include respect for the speaker and the desire to understand the speaker’s message. Understanding can be checked by reflecting back to the speaker what we believe the message to be.
Seeking understanding might require us to recognise the beliefs, values and feelings of the speaker. It certainly includes accepting that the speaker’s beliefs, values and feelings are as important to the speaker as ours are to us. Seeking to understand does not mean that we agree with what the speaker is saying, or that we will adopt those beliefs and values as our own.
However, if we expect other people to be persuaded by what we say, we must set the example and be open to adjusting our beliefs and values when what we hear makes more sense than what we currently believe or do.
Respectfully listening to the speaker makes it more likely that we will be shown the same courtesy as we openly and honestly reveal our beliefs, values and feelings. It’s important for this to be a simple statement of what our beliefs and values are, and maybe the effect they have on our everyday life, but without implying that they are superior in any way to the beliefs and values of others.
Two-way respectful listening is a necessary part of effective communication between people who are equal but different.
Bob Myers, author of Travelling the Road of Peace and Happiness.