'The richness of life doesn't lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.'
Back in the 1990s when people discovered I was a psychologist, they would cast their eyes to the floor, take a step away and nervously respond 'I hope you're not going to analyse me'.
I hardly ever hear that any more. People have become more comfortable talking about themselves. Now the most common response I get is 'I don't know how you listen to people's problems all day'. In two decades we have gone from not wanting to talk, to not wanting to listen.
It's no coincidence that this shift has happened at the same time as the digital world has exploded. For a start we can find anything we need on-line, so the information value of listening has diminished. And the relational value is being lost too. Information is being used and exchanged like a commodity for the purpose of competitive advantage and self-promotion. And we've forgotten that information has another function - bonding.
Add to this the current obsession with happiness (and the resulting intolerance to distress) and time poverty and it's easy to see how we are in danger of loosing this most valuable key to unlocking our relationships with each other... listening.
The last time someone really listened to me, I cried. Time slowed down and I was able to connect to a sadness that I wasn't even aware of. And because that person really listened, I trusted them. And because of this we were drawn into a more intimate and bonding encounter. And I felt much better. We all need this; it's how we connect. And it's how we come to know ourselves.
Listening involves letting the person finish their sentence completely... and orientating your response around them not yourself. It involves suspending your thoughts and being totally present. It is an act of generosity that will feel as good to you as it does to the other person. But it requires practice and patience. It is a skill I use everyday in my work, but not always in the rest of my life. I set myself a challenge yesterday to monitor how well I listened, and was shocked to realise how much I interrupted.
And it's not just better relationships you stand to gain. If you really listen, people are fascinating. A life coach recently told me that when he lets clients completely finish their sentences he is, 50% of the time, surprised by what they say. You could argue that that is a 50% more interesting conversation.
So in answer to people's question 'how do I listen to other people's problems all day?' The answer is it isn't hard at all. When you are really listening, people tell their stories with great truth and openness - and when they do, it is never ever boring. So how about you really listen to someone today, chances are you'll be surprised by what they say and create a bond in the process.
Image: flickr/ ky_olsen