Maren Schmidt: Why don't we listen better?

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The hostess at the dinner party asked me question after question, keeping me actively engaged in conversation.

The next day, I realized I had done most of the talking. But, I thought my new friend was the most fascinating person in the world. Why?

Because she listened to me.

Learning to listen with interest to others is a powerful tool. Listening for understanding connects you to people like nothing else. Dale Carnegie in "How to Win Friends and Influence People" said it well when he advised us to speak in terms of the other person's interests.

If listening connects us so powerfully to other people, why don't we listen better?

We have too much stuff in the way. Most of that stuff is called ego.

Too often we want the conversation to be about us. Take the instance when someone confides in us.

What do we do?

Instead of listening for understanding, we offer advice. We give our opinion. We tell a story of how we went through a situation that was even worse. We blame. We insult. We criticize. We punish. We make judgments and diagnose. We interject our own needs, emotions, and values into the scenario.

In the process, we block, and most likely destroy, any opportunity for true listening. All our conversation partner needs is for us to listen to them without judging, criticizing, complaining or evaluating. They want us to be interested in them. Conversely, when it is our turn to talk, we want to be listened to in a way that makes us feel understood.

In his book, "Why Don't We Listen Better?," Jim Petersen shows us a simple method to take turns and make serious listening into a win-win game while avoiding the compulsion to defend or inflate our egos.

In any relationship, there has to be an active and a passive role. Actors need an audience. Chefs need gourmands. Pitchers need batters. When an actor sits in the audience, he shouldn't act. When the chef is dining out, she shouldn't march to the kitchen and try out a new recipe. When the pitcher is at bat, he best swing at the ball.

A talker needs a listener. A listener requires a talker. As in any relationship, it is best to know what role you are playing at the time, and the rules and expectations that go with that role.

Petersen helps us define these roles and gives us a tool for helping all parties be in tune with the responsibilities of effective communication.

The Talker. The talker's role is to take ownership of the problem because the talker is most concerned with the situation. The talker's job is to share his or her feelings and thoughts without accusing, labeling, judging or attacking others.

The Listener. The listener's role is to be calm enough to hear and comprehend what the talker is saying. The listener does not own the problem and therefore avoids agreeing or disagreeing with the items being discussed. The listener refrains from advising or defending a point of view. The listener's job is to provide a safe environment for the speaker, to seek, to understand, and to ask questions to clarify information in order to understand.

Worth the purchase price of the book is Petersen's tabletop Talker/Listener card. This tent card helps defines each communication role and the rules for that role - in red and blue for everybody to see.

The talker asks if the listener is able to listen and places the card between them. When the talker is finished, he or she simply turns the card and says, "I'm finished talking. Your turn to talk. My turn to listen."

Instead of confrontation, communication becomes a game.

Like a pitcher coming up to bat, we need to remember that listeners need an opportunity to talk. For effective communication, we need to know how to listen and how to talk.

Each of us - kids from 1 to 92 - needs to be heard. It can happen when we learn to listen better, and take turns.

Next Week: A Thank You Walk

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