It was one of those rare days when I wanted to be left alone in solitude for a few hours. I was at a hotel lobby in Kuala Lumpur waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport.
“Hi uncle, so you’re leaving.” I turned round to see my Malaysian friend’s 8-year old son smilingly walking towards me. He sat by my side, and began narrating in complete detail, about a movie he had just seen, punctuated by 1,000 “You know?”
My eyes were heavy with sleep. There were three phone calls but I let them go into the answering machine. After another 10 minutes, I fought the urge to say, “It’s been nice listening to you.” But I didn’t.
And later, in the taxi from the hotel to the airport, I got another assault on my ears, this time by a driver rambling on about his son in university.
At last, at the departure lounge, I had 45 wholesome minutes before my flight took off - time for me to be alone with my own thoughts, to open a book and let my mind wander.
A voice next to me, that of an elderly woman said, “Somebody said, it’s raining in Colombo.” Stone-faced, I replied, “It’s likely.”
“1 haven’t been to Colombo in nearly sixteen years,” she persisted. “My son lives there.” “That’s nice,” I said, my eyes intent on my book.
“My husband’s body is on this plane. We’ve been married for 45 years. After marriage, we settled down here. He told me if he predeceases me, the body must be buried in Sri Lanka. You see, some people never forget their motherland. He is that type. Good man, I miss him.”
I don’t think I have ever detested myself more than I did at that moment. Another human being was screaming to be heard, and, in desperation had turned to a cold stranger who was more interested in a book than in the real-lift drama at his elbow. She needed no advice, money, assistance, or even compassion - all she needed was someone, to listen to her.
She talked numbly and steadily until we boarded the plane, then found her seat alongside a lady in another section.
As I put my briefcase into the overhead compartment, I heard her plaintive voice say to her companion. “Somebody told me it’s raining in Colombo.”
I prayed to myself, “Please, let her listen.”
Listening is a very powerful tool, but unfortunately, not well utilized. I think if we all learned to listen better, there would be less need for therapists and counsellors. Those clients who simply need a safe place to unload and give vent to their emotions would already have a space where they would be heard and acknowledged.
At times, we all have a universal need to feel heard and understood. Yet, I find many people quite self-centred in their conversation, or perhaps, I should say in their monologue. They love to hear themselves talk, rarely ask the other questions, and when they finally allow the other person to speak, they quickly bring it right back to themselves.
The other day, I was reading a book by an award-winning American author - Garth Stein titled “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” In the book, there was a good paragraph on listening.
Narrated by a dog, it reads “I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly…. Pretend you are a dog like me and listen to other people rather than steal their stories.”
If you want to connect with people, there is an essential social mantra: Always let the speaker be the star.
Whatever they are telling you, whether it’s a story about something their child does in school, a trip to Europe they’re planning, a complaint about what so-and-so said to them earlier - be the most respectful audience you can be. The chair they are sitting on, the doorway they are standing on, wherever they are -is their stage. Let them say their piece, no matter what you think of the story, or what you would rather do in their place.
Really listen to what they say, and recognize that what they’re saying is important to them. When you can get a glimpse of what people value, you can see the humanity in them. And that is how humans connect: by understanding each others’ values. You don’t have to share those values, though you’ll certainly find that you share something with everyone.
Let me give you a few more tips to listen fully
1. Realize the distinction between listening and hearing.
Listening involves the whole person - mind, heart, and soul. Attentiveness, interest, and concern, need to shine through. Forget yourself for a short while. There’s so much to learn from people. Everybody has a story, most of the time,good stories.
2. Reflect back on what the other says.
Comment on it; it makes them feel heard. All too often we bring it back to ourselves. Let people feel that it’s all about them for that moment.
3. Be present and stay focused.
Stay with the other person’s talk. It’s obvious when the listener is simply thinking about his next comment.
4. Ask questions - meaningful ones. Of course, not the concrete 5 W (where, what, who, when, why). It shows you really wish to understand the other person, not just participate in the bare minimum.
5. Acknowledge feelings. This is the crux of good communication. When people feel understood, they’re less likely to get defensive and argumentative.
We are all human beings. Our intuitive need is to feel held, with words, rather than to receive solutions. When we get the space, and the understanding we need, we can usually come to our own answers.
What if we all just listened more?