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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Giving Oxygen

Recently, I listened as a friend recounted a jarring adolescent experience. After my friend finished, another listener reacted to the story with a comment that struck me as flippant, even mildly dismissive. My friend didn't outwardly appear to be put out by the comment but the scene has re-played in my head ever since.

I think it was Stephen Covey (author of "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People") who I first heard say that listening deeply to others is like giving them oxygen. When I sense someone is sharing a story about their pain, a trauma, or even adolescent discomfort, my initial instinct is to lean in. More than a few times, I've heard others ask "What good does it do another person if I sympathize with them?" Of course, the answer is it does no good at all. The past is past; pain cannot be undone.  

But that question ("What good...?) always strikes me as beside the point. A better question might be "How can it hurt me as a listener to let someone tell their story?" Good listening often requires little response; it costs nothing to be silent. And silence after someone has told their story is preferable to drawing glib conclusions, making judgments, problem solving.

What kind of listener are you? I have an old friend who I've heard tell stories of mis-treatment he endured as a young boy in school. Each time he tells it, the pain of the memory is apparent. I hope I've been a good friend by giving him the oxygen he needs.

2 comments:

  1. Listening might indeed be the most important of all the communication skills to have. How can you communicate if you do not know with whom you are speaking? Can I really tell what language a person speaks by looking at them and doing nothing else? No, I must listen so that I can respond to what that person is truly saying and not what I have prejudged that person to be saying before they even open their mouth. Thanks Pat you are always worth listening to.

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  2. Mike; Thanks for your comment and your supportive words; hope to see more from you in the future.

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