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MASTERSON ONLINE: Failure to listen

by Mike Masterson | December 28, 2019 at 2:50 a.m.

I've worked for years at recognizing the difference between when to speak and when to close my mouth, lock my jaw, and listen (for gosh sakes.)

It can be a challenge during conversation not to interrupt or suddenly inject our own stories (I call 'em toppers) before the other person can even finish the one they started. What's that they say about God giving us one tongue and two ears?

My problem arises whenever I hear someone telling a story and my mind invariably races to my own similar experience. Too often I've been unable to restrain my impatience enough to politely wait for the person to complete their thought.

Impatience (devolving into rudeness) is no excuse. It's a personality flaw I sorely needed to become aware of and change to become a better listener. Short of gaining experience firsthand, I've probably never grasped anything useful while running my mouth. But who could?

The Dalai Lama (I like calling him TDL) surely didn't think that worked when he admonished us one and all: "When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something." Notice how even TDL qualified his remark with "may."

If a talker's objective through nonstop chatter is to impress others, I have a life lesson worth sharing. People generally are resentful and/or bored by hearing another pontificate about the greatness of themselves. That generally doesn't deter the talker from continuing to chatter, oblivious to any stony reaction.

If I want to make a favorable impression on another person, the key lies in asking questions about them, then sincerely listening to their response. The more questions (short of interrogation), the more I learn and the better the other person likely feels about my attention on them, rather than droning on about the effervescent wonderfulness of me.

Listening does require some technique. In my quest to improve, I've had to embrace being non-judgmental while becoming more patient and respectful of what others are sharing. I've also stopped risking embarrassment by trying to "helpfully" finish their sentences.

The ultimate goal while cruising through my late November of life is to further self-awareness while boosting knowledge through practicing more silence than speech. I've seen it written that those who can genuinely listen to others also have the ability to listen deeply to themselves.

It doesn't require much, you know. Just the capacity to overcome our urge to interrupt or blather on well beyond the point we are making.

Hearing is by no means actually listening for the significance and meaning behind the information being shared. Neither is looking over the shoulder of the one speaking in hopes of finding someone across the way more interesting. G.K. Chesterton said there is a vast difference between hearing and listening.

Author Aletheia Luna explained her perspective: "If you're anything like me, you probably find yourself on the receiving end of countless uninitiated conversations. Although you sit quietly listening to them, the fact is that you'd much prefer to be doing something else.

"The problem with constantly feeling this way is that we never actually hear the people who speak to us. We don't put our entire attention, interest or heart into listening and truly understanding them. And not only does this create alienation within us, but that alienation is felt by the other person as well."

Here are some of Luna's suggestions, rooted in common sense, for becoming better at listening.

Make eye contact, which while obvious, too often is forgotten or ignored altogether. The person who's speaking gets the impression you don't care about what they have to say or about them as a person if you don't look at them.

My favorite, as cited above: Don't interrupt. Mastering the ability to listen means avoiding voicing any good or related thoughts that pop into mind and simply letting the person say everything they need to. People often just want or need someone to talk to, not someone who will butt in. The goal becomes to shine the spotlight on them. Just wait your turn to speak.

Practice the skill of active listening, which doesn't necessarily mean remaining completely quiet most of the time, but asking questions for clarification or more information to completely comprehend what's being said. Luna gives the examples: "Are you saying that ... ?" "What I heard you say was ... ?" "Did you mean that ...?" For me, this also falls under the category of basic respect.

Show you comprehend what they are saying. Nod if you understand, or give some indication that you are in tune with their words, like saying, "yes," "yeah," "OK" or "hmm." Luna says, "This seems trivial, but it's important to not behave like a zombie, and demonstrate some interest and comprehension."

Listen without thinking. Tune your mind fully to what's being said and just actively listen without forming internal responses. For most of us, it is tempting to try to fill any spaces since our minds process about 800 words a minute but speak 125-150 words a minute. If you let your mind wander, you could miss potentially valuable information. We do have that choice.

Try to listen without judgment. It's important to avoid negativity or judgment of what's being said. The goal always should be to remain open-minded. Few would be inclined to open up to a narrow-minded listener. Also be aware of your "shutoff" triggers--specific phrases, looks, or conditions that cause you to stop listening.

Watch for nonverbal communication, which can be as much as 75 percent of our communication. It's important to recognize what the person's body is saying as they speak. Do they look uncomfortable or wary? Does their body language appear to mesh with their words?

Finally, if you and I truly care about becoming better listeners rather than talkers, watch other people. "One of the best ways to become a better listener," Luna writes, "is to observe the way people interact with each other, and all the irritating and rude things they do. Create an 'annoying habit' checklist and see if you do any. If you're brave enough, you can even ask someone you trust about what they like and dislike about the way you interact with others in conversation." Then change it.

OK, a quick review: It's rude to cut in on others while they are talking. We're best served by keeping our mouths closed until it is acceptable to speak. Others think far more highly of us when we are asking about them rather than expounding (often out of insecurities) on our virtues and achievements. Remember, we never learn anything while we are talking.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at

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