Literal Listening: Advice to Improve Your Relationships
Listening to each other, listening to yourself, and listening to your own wisdom may be rarer than it seems.
Recently, a friend asked me to come to California to watch her perform in a show. Unfortunately, the performance was scheduled for a weekend that I’d made another important commitment that I didn’t feel I could break. She got pretty upset when I told her that I wouldn’t be there and why. She had the belief that because I chose to keep the previous commitment, it meant that I didn’t care enough for her and her work.
I realized she could’ve avoided the pain if she had simply listened literally to what I was saying. I began to notice how I—and others—listen to each other. Or rather, don’t listen to each other. Sometimes when people seem like they’re listening, they’re actually doing something else while you are talking. They could be:
- Projecting what they think you are going to say next then interrupt and finish your sentence for you, i.e., a mind-reading practice
- Rehearsing what they are going to say next to impress you, i.e., acting
- Filtering out what they don’t want to hear, i.e., not loving ‘what is’
- Looking for a way to be right or to give advice, i.e., not connecting
- Reinterpreting what you are saying because of your tone, body language, or some historical event in their own lives, verses listening to the actual words you are saying, i.e., making stuff up
- Coming up with a brilliant idea of what to say next, i.e., competing
- Drifting into the past or future because of something you said, i.e., daydreaming
- Feeling insecure and want you to like them so they interrupt with something they deem more important, i.e., being self-centered
- Thinking of something totally different and are missing the moment with you, i.e. Distracted and not the best person to be hanging out with
- Trying to figure out a way to “save” you so you don’t have to ask for what you want or need, i.e. not letting you have your own experience
- Getting ready to ask never-ending questions to shift the focus off of you and onto them, i.e., attention-grabbing
This doesn’t just apply to those who are listening to us—it might apply to us as we listen to them. I know I do some of the same things.
M. Scott Peck said, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” Texting wasn’t even around when he said that!
Practice Literal Listening
There’s a brilliant woman who is an advocate for literal listening. Her name is Byron Katie and she’s the founder what she calls The Work, an inquiry practice to use when we have thoughts that cause us suffering.
The Work is a set of four basic questions that we can ask ourselves or have others ask us when we have a thought that causes us stress. These questions work to examine our thought, to find out if what we are telling ourselves is true or not. She suggests that we, “Practice listening to others in the most literal sense, believing exactly what they say without attaching a future to it, and do your best to resist falling into your own interpretations about the information they share with you.”
She uses this example: “Someone might give you a compliment, and you interpret that to mean that the person has ulterior motives. Our interpretations of what we hear people say to us are often far more painful or frightening than what people actually say. We can hurt ourselves with our misconceptions and our thinking for others. “ A practice she often teaches in her workshops is to, “Try trusting that what they say is exactly what they mean: not more, not less.”
Literal listening is good for you. It definitely creates more silence in the mind, and more harmony with others. It cuts down on the drama when we hear what is actually said and when we allow the other to complete their thoughts without interruption.
Literal listening is a gift you give others. It’s more than just being silent when another person is speaking. Listening creates the space for someone to be who they are, and to be heard. Sometimes they might have to ask for something that is difficult for them, or say something that they’ve been meaning to say to you. When you let them, they get to be powerful. It’s in the listening that people become more alive, clear, and beautiful.
And truly being listened to is a fabulous experience. Listening is said to nurture the soul, and we all desire the connection that communication creates. Sometimes the deepest insights emerge and our creative mind emerges if someone can simply be present to you and listen to you deeply. Perhaps this is why counselors are perpetually popular. I love this quote, but don’t know the author, “Without the listening, there would be no music; no poetry, and no prayer.”
6 Tips to Help You Hone Your Literal Listening Skills
#1. Think about someone you care about and how they ‘get you’: they know you and you trust them. How do you feel when they listen to you?
#2. Give someone you care about your complete attention as they speak. Watch your tendency to mind read or imagine what they are going to say next. Be easy on yourself, but notice.
#3. Keep your attention in the present moment. Their words might trigger thoughts about the past or future. When you notice, come back and give your attention to the speaker.
#4. Observe yourself as you listen to others. You might notice you have an initial judgment or interpretation.
#5. Watch how you might want to interrupt or jump in when they take a breath, or get their next thought together.
#6. Relax and notice your body language and the sensations in your body. Practice receiving the communication. Keep facing them and give them eye contact. Notice if you cross your arms across your chest (a protective stance). Resist looking at your watch, looking around while someone is sharing.
“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. When we really listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. We are constantly being re-created.” ~ Brenda Ueland