Have you ever found yourself giving advice to a loved one, only to end up disappointed and frustrated because they didn’t listen to you? Maybe you’ve tried telling your best friend to quit that awful job already. “Can’t you see that it’s making you miserable? You’ll be so much better off once you resign!” Or maybe you’ve attempted to counsel your husband on how best to talk to his brother. “You know what you need to do, honey? You need to draw a boundary with him.” Or perhaps you are the anguished parent wailing on your knees in desperation as it’s time to leave the house for carpool. “It’s time for SCHOOL! Get your SHOES on! How many times do I have to tell you? Why don’t you ever LISTEN TO ME?”
We scream, we shout, we plead. We counsel, we guide and we recommend. We are so eager to share our opinions and bless others with our superior knowledge that we rush right into giving advice and then we get our panties all wadded up when inevitably the person we’re telling to do something doesn’t do it. They don’t listen to us. They have the gall to ignore our advice and make their own decisions. What’s the point of even talking to them, if they’re not going to listen to us (*cough cough – do what we tell them to do – cough cough*) – right?
Hold on a second. Who exactly has the listening problem here?
When I talk to someone and tell them what to do or throw in a piece of advice, and then get upset if they don’t follow my orders, there is certainly a problem – but the problem is not that the person didn’t listen to me. It’s quite probable that they heard every word I said. If I’m upset, the problem is that they didn’t do what I wanted them to do. In this case, when I say, “You don’t listen to me,” the reality has nothing to do with listening at all and everything to do with control.
Why do we so often confuse “listening” with “doing what I told you to do?” Why do we so often expect others to not only listen but act on the words we say when we so clearly don’t listen to what they are saying?
We were made with two ears and one mouth, but instead of taking that as a cue to spend twice as much time hearing things, we very often misinterpret this fact of nature and instead use our mouth twice as often as necessary to make up for the lack. As Stephen R. Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” If that’s true, then most people are living their lives impatiently waiting to speak, resulting in a whole heck of a lot of noise but very little understanding.
If there’s one thing I think our world could use right now, it’s more understanding.
I have a deep desire to be understood. I want people to hear me when I talk. Not just nod politely, or one-up me with a funny tale that relates slightly to the topic I brought up. I want to be heard. I want to be understood. I want to feel like I matter.
It’s ironic, then, that I’ve spent so much of my life talking, replying, joking, gossiping, advising, counseling and chattering away like a nervous schoolgirl. For an introvert, I’m a chatty little thing. It wears me out and leaves me exhausted, but good Lord, I can talk. Perhaps I’ve always talked so much out of a misguided hope that if I used enough words and shared enough about myself, then someone would listen to me. The problem is, of course, that talking about myself – or worse, telling someone else how to live their life – has prevented me from the true connection I’ve always craved. I’ve contributed to filling each space I enter with noise, not with intimacy or understanding. In fact, I’ve probably repelled any chance at all at true connection with my fellow human beings.
I’ve been slowing my roll a bit lately, and I’ve seen a tremendous difference in my life. Instead of talking all the darn time, and telling people what to do, and lamenting that no one listens to me, I’ve decided to try listening a little bit more myself. After all, we can’t change anyone else’s behavior – we can only change our own. I’m learning that changing my own behavior is often the most powerful thing that can happen. I’ve been listening more, and advising less. In turn, I feel truly connected with some of the most important people in my life, and I’ve found some unexpected friendships as well. The icing on the cake is that, for perhaps the first time in my life, I feel like there are a few people in the world that truly hear and understand me.
I stopped talking so much, and now I feel like people listen to me. It is either the most obvious thing in the world or the most baffling paradox in the world.
Let’s face it – no one wants to be told what to do. My kids don’t like being told to put their shoes on and my BFF doesn’t want to hear my well-meaning but annoying advice about quitting her job. I may feel like my kids or my BFF or my husband don’t listen to me, but maybe it would be more accurate to say that I don’t listen to my kids or my BFF or my husband. Maybe the people in my life that “don’t listen” are just mirrors for me, reflecting back my own failures and areas I need to work on.
Going a step further, it may also be fair to say that no one will listen to me if I’m always telling them what to do. People have a right to consider all the information available to them and then conscientiously make their own decisions based on all their own personal fears, doubts, hopes and dreams. As I often like to remind myself, my opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant. Taking another’s actions (or lack of actions) personally simply makes a situation that has little or nothing to do with me all about me and my bruised ego. And that is not good for anyone.
Listening doesn’t mean doing what someone tells you to do. Listening is gentle and loving, kind and compassionate. Listening is a communion with another person. It’s the gateway to the connection and understanding that we all so desperately crave.
I still have quite a bit of work to do on listening, but it’s honorable and worthwhile work. I’m up to the challenge. I hope you are, too.