The art of listening

As the new year rolls around, many of us are trying to stick to our New Year’s resolutions – some of us with better success than others. A lot of those resolutions are designed to benefit ourselves by either correcting a bad habit or incorporating healthier routines into our life. However, as much as I value the idea of self-improvement and practice it myself, there’s another skill in which I’ve come to invest in the past several years that I think could help all of us. It could especially help these days when communication has become contentious and impersonal: the art of listening.

This skill focuses more on other people than ourselves, but I think evaluating how we personally engage with others and really listen to them helps us be better friends and solves disagreements faster. In particular, I’ve found how we respond after considering what someone has said illustrates the primary reason we communicate – to have our listeners comprehend what we’ve said and to improve the extent to which both of us understand the subject.

Usually, whenever I’m in conversation with someone, especially when they’re talking about a problem they’re having and they want advice, my instinctual reaction is to want to solve the problem and give practical options to resolve the issue or cope with it better. But we can’t always make everything better nor should we want to, because if other people come to expect that from us it’ll just seem patronizing. I’ve found that the best course of action after listening to someone share their thoughts or feelings is to ask them questions about how and why they see things that way. I think when another person who’s operating outside of our own mental space, guides us through an analysis of whatever’s preoccupying us, we might achieve some sort of relief. Not only can this approach help lighten our sense of duty to assist our friends, it can also make us feel free to communicate when something’s bothering us. I suppose it creates an expectation of sympathy from our friends, which seems to be a worthwhile byproduct to me.

Actually, implementing this tactic didn’t feel out of character for me because I’ve always liked to have conversations with people and question them about their interests. That’s one reason why I like working for the student newspaper. I think on some level I was subconsciously using these methods when I’d talk to people, but after I started prioritizing this approach, the dynamic of my conversations changed. Instead of them feeling as though their thoughts and feelings were mere transitory topics, they’d appreciate honest, inquisitive responses. And it’s not even about offering answers about what you think they want to hear; if you allow yourself to function as a sounding board, you can help whoever you’re talking with get to the bottom of things, which enables you to be better informed when your advice is actually wanted or needed.

I know all of us get annoyed when other people offer unsolicited advice. Perhaps we can prevent ourselves from being that way by genuinely listening and trying to understand each other’s problems.