A Talker's Guide to Listening
May I say something? No need to answer. I'll end up talking anyway. There isn't much that ever stops me. As Wilbur once said, "When I wanna say a something, I open up and talk." For those of you less-refined folks, I've added the clip below.
Believe it or not (which, if you know me, you believe it), this is the way much of my life looks whether someone's around or not. Just look at this writing style. I'm two paragraphs in and haven't ceased talking about myself. I've said many times before that I'm one of my favorite people to hang out with. I don't apologize for that. I'm stuck with me forever, so it's reassuring to know that I'll continue to enjoy my own company. My handsome son Oliver seems to have fallen right in line, entertaining himself constantly.
To avoid any of you feeling that I'm accusing you of narcissism, and to lend to a more comfortable reading environment, I'll continue this blog addressing only my personal journey of self-absorbency. You all may not understand what it's like to be an extroverted entertainer at heart, so I'll just fill you in as we go. Growing up, I often found myself the life of the party, the center of attention, or the loud-mouth (depending on who you asked). As far as I knew I was bringing much joy to the masses. What a blessing I was. You're welcome, world!
In all honesty, I truly was fueled by attention, as I'm sure none of you are. I was often correct in feeling that I was lifting people, bringing joy, and making people feel better about themselves. Deep down, that was my heart and goal, but as with anything, our human nature can twist any motive inward. Little did I know that my noise was interrupting restful silence, my laughter not always victim-less, and one-man show at times simply obnoxious.
As I grew older, wiser, and learned to listen more to the Holy Spirit, something amazing began to happen on the inside of me. I remember one day as I was ready to cut off a friend in conversation, and the same week as I was raising my hand in class to answer yet another question (someone has to, right?), that the Holy Spirit taught me a valuable lesson with one question: Is what you have to say more important than what they have to say? Again, in another situation, "Will these people survive if you don't say what you feel you HAVE to say, Ryan?"
What a thought! Just because I know the answer doesn't mean I can't move out of the way and allow others to speak up. I'm not obligated to tell that story simply because it just popped into my head. Worst of all, I had to realize that cutting off a friend's story to "connect with them" by telling a similar story from my life didn't help us connect, but shouted "I don't find your words to be as valuable as mine." It seemed dramatic, even drastic, but I knew it to be true. It wasn't my heart, but my actions were painting a different picture.
Our God is so good that He doesn't point out your issues and leave you helpless. If He speaks to you about something, it's because He wants to help you grow and be like Him. I quickly began to ask Him how I could put more value on others and asked Him to teach me to be slow to speak. I say began because, although it was a quick start, I'm still in this training course. Around this time in my life, I was beginning to get to know Abigail, my bride forever and the one I deemed a "professional friend." We could not be more different in this area.
Anyone who knows Abby honors Abby. She is looked upon with such love and respect. I love hearing the way others talk about my wife. I love, even more, that all of the things they say are true. I remember watching her life as we began to spend time together. I wanted to see what this woman did that would cause people to light up when they spoke of her. I quickly learned the answer. She listened.
That's it! She wasn't always the leader in the conversation, she wasn't trying to make people laugh, and she didn't seem to need their approval at all. She did 2 things amazingly well. She asked questions and sincerely listened to the answer. I would watch as, over the course of minutes, her friends would seemingly grow 40-feet in stature. Their countenance would lift, their faces brighten, and they'd walk away lighter and taller than when the conversation started.
I've always longed to see people encouraged. I ascribe to Pastor Gabe Muñoz' mantra that we should always leave people feeling lifted when we leave their presence. This was the first time that I realized, however, that I didn't have to do or say anything to add value. My time and a listening ear could do wonders.
I'd like to say that I immediately repented and became the world's greatest listener. I cannot tell a lie. It took quite a few months for me to even get the basics. It helped that I was being challenged daily by the Holy Spirit and by my growing relationship with my eventual wife. Still, it was a lot to learn. I'll save you the time, especially since I've already taken so much from you, and give you the key things I've learned.
The Big Idea
In a social microcosm confidence, bravado, machismo and charisma are king, but when it comes to valuing people there are only two rules:
1. Listen Intently
2. Encourage Freely
1. Make eye contact. It can be odd, but that proves our need for it. Connect with someone. A simple look in the eye immediately moves you beyond shallow small-talk.
2. Ask real questions. This is more difficult than it should be. Don't talk about the weather or blankly ask how they are doing (boy, am I the guiltiest of all with surface-level conversation). Ask something that matters. If you have no clue, start with some of these fireballs.
"How many siblings do you have?" >>>>This is the Abby Cirkles' go-to. You learn so much.
"If you could do anything for the rest of your life, what would it be?"
"What makes you tick? What makes you wake up excited?"
"Is this season of your life going the way you thought it would?"
"Is there anything I can pray with you about?"
"What are you excited about these days?"
3. Listen...and don't talk. Here's the key that separates the posers from the real listeners, and the final skill in mastering listening. As they answer, keep your mouth shut. Zip it. This is not your moment. You've given them the floor. So often we naturally say whatever pops into our heads. It is a guarantee that whatever they're saying will trigger a memory or nugget of wisdom you'd love to share as a tool to relate and connect. We aren't relating and connecting right now. We're heaping value on this human being that is yearning to be heard. You can do it. If necessary, purchase a muzzle.
4. Empathize and Encourage. Men, this is for you. Well, the last one was, too. Actually, just take some time and work on all of them. We as people, but especially as men, believe that people share things with us because they need our assistance fixing their issues. This is not true. They share because they want their feelings validated and to be understood. Even if you can't understand, just assure them that their answers are heard and have value (i.e. "I'm so sorry. That must have been terrible." "Wow, that sounds exciting." "Yes, great joke. I bet that really got them going."). End any conversation by reassuring them and encouraging them or offering pray for something they've mentioned.
It doesn't have to be hard. Step 1, get over yourself. I had to. The world doesn't need your next sentence to make it through. Yes, we all have a voice and should stand up and speak up, but people don't really need that. They need your ear. Most of us start with two, but there are still too few of them open and ready to listen.
***Challenge: Try these at home, at work, or over coffee. Let us know how it goes. Maybe you're a natural. Maybe you'll be honest and it will be hard. May I encourage you, however, that of all the achievements and talents I've enjoyed in my journey, my growing ability to listen is one of 2 or 3 that I'm most proud of. If you're a giver at heart, do yourself a favor and learn to listen. ***PS - Don't forget The Cirkles are cheering you on.