Listen

By Dr. Michael Leftwich, Dean of Doctoral Program


"Seek to understand by concentrating on what people say"


When I’ve got a point to make, or something important to say, it is so easy for me to just go ahead and say it. Sometimes the urgency seems so great that I just can’t resist, or sometimes the time is short and I just want to summarize everything and call it done.


Yet as I reflect back, I can honestly say that I’ve learned much more by resisting those urges, by being patient and giving others a little more time, and by simply listening. "Simply” listening isn’t simple or easy; at least it isn’t always for me. There are plenty of times when I feel like I’m just biding my time and waiting for my turn to speak. I’m not ignoring my partner(s) in the transaction, but I’m also not giving them my full attention.


Truly listening involves concentration, freeing myself from distraction, and purposefully going beyond the words. If I pay focused attention, consider others’ perspectives, and attempt to seek the function of the words, a qualitatively different level of communication and understanding can be reached. That level of attending and comprehension takes effort, and so ultimately it can become a question of energy or resources. Do I have it in me at that moment to invest what is needed to better relate to others? Am I willing or able to make a small sacrifice in the name of facilitating communication?


If I listen to myself for too long, I am probably more likely to answer those last two questions "no” (for example, as I re-read the paragraph above, I am aware that the whole notion somehow feels bigger or more difficult than it really is). Maybe the simple part comes from saying "yes” before my perfectionism can talk me out of it; by allowing for the possibility that I can still be a good (or at least a polite) listener even if I’m tired, impatient, in a hurry, or am feeling the need to get something done.


Concentration and listening are active processes, not static end-states. As one of my mentors was fond of saying, "You can’t put [them] in a wheelbarrow.” By letting myself flow with the moments, by gently bringing myself back into focus when I drift from someone I’m listening to, I am extending a courtesy of sorts to both speaker and listener. I am valuing what is said as well as what it takes to truly understand it, and the results are usually worth it.