We’re taught at a very young age that it’s important to learn how to listen, but how often are we actually LISTENING to what other people are saying? I was at Riverside Juvenile Hall recently checking in the juvenile mediation clinic that I helped start when I was a Law Student at Chapman University School of Law that provides peer mediation and conflict resolution training for the youth there. This program allows the youth to learn skills that will be invaluable to them both in the facility and when they hopefully get out. When I was there, I spoke with two young men who had just gotten there. However, it wasn’t either of their first-times. I spent time along with one of the law students just talking with them, seeing how they were doing and what they wanted to happen when they go out. Both of these young men were almost 18, and we talked about what would happen if they continued to get in trouble and how they could avoid it. One of the young men shared how he’d had a difficult time using the bathroom when he was there and while that may be an awkward conversation for many I was able to take what he was saying to ask questions that brought us back to his time there and what he would do to deal with stress when he got out. The student I was working with was shocked how I would take it from something slightly uncomfortable to somewhere productive.
Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with listening and why it even matters but stay with me for a moment. When we’re taught to listen as a young child, it’s more about making sure we do what we’re told and listen exactly to what our parents or teachers are telling us, but listening is far more than that. Listening to what someone is saying requires us to not only listen to what they say but also listen to what they’re not saying. Non-verbal communication can tell you so much more about someone than the words that they’re using. When I’m listening to clients in a session, I observe what they’re body language says, including how they’re sitting, where they’re looking and whether they’re fidgeting and can’t seem to sit still. By being aware of what they’re not saying out loud, I can often infer how they feel about a situation even if they aren’t able to put it into words.
Just as important as observing the non-verbal communication is making sure that you’re listening and not just thinking about what you’re going to say next. Too often we try to move so fast that instead of listening to whomever we’re talking to we’re just thinking about how we’re going to respond to them, so we miss most of what they’ve said. It’s ok to take time after someone finishes talking to comprehend what they just said and then figure out how to respond. Silence is OK and can even convey to the other person that you’re thinking about what they said and want to make sure that you have a thoughtful response. I challenge you to try this next time you’re talking with a friend, family or co-worker and see how the dynamic changes.