What if you developed a different approach to conversations, especially those where conflict exists? What if, instead of having to agree or disagree, like or dislike, you could learn to understand and be understood? What if you learned to just listen?
Studies show that the average person will listen to someone 3-9 seconds before they react and begin to form a response. We would have better relationships if we learned to extend this time frame and make an attempt to see things from the other person’s perspective. A good example of this comes from Jeremy Cowart. Jeremy is an artist and works through painting and photography. He has been named “The most influential photographer on the web.” After the 2010 Haitian earthquake he watched, as you and I did, the pictures and statistics of the devastation and death in the aftermath of that catastrophic event. He wondered, “How were the people feeling?” He had heard the reports from strangers that descended on Haiti to cover the news. But he had not heard anything from the people. So he decided to go to Port-Au-Prince and ask them himself. You can watch a video of this experience here. His question was “What do you have to say about all this?” He just listened and took pictures to reveal the answers of the people. He quickly discovered the Haitian people were tired of reporters and photographers already. But when they heard that he wanted to hear their opinion they were appreciative. They respected him for listening to them and giving them a platform to speak. What he heard was telling.
- “God showed me the path of hope.”
- “Work is freedom and we have what it takes.”
- “A lot of hands make the load lighter. Let’s rebuild Haiti together.”
- One man, not too pleased with living in the tent city, said, “Home Sweet Home.”
- Others had asked Jeremy why he was talking to the children, that they had nothing to say. One child said this: “I hope this never happens again. Too many people died.”
- Another couple had planned to be married in a church building that was destroyed by the earthquake. After the quake they got married in front of the rubble and said, “Love conquers all.”
Cowart’s work was used at a gathering of world leaders at the UN building in NYC. Ten Billion Dollars were pledged in their meeting to help re-construct Haiti. It could be that someone listened. What happened to him needs to happen to all of us. Walk for a while in the other person’s shoes. We spend most of our time thinking about our view or opinion and looking for ways to justify, defend, or explain them. Sometimes we merely report facts and statistics. We spend little time attempting to listen deeply to someone else. You don’t have to go to the lengths Cowart did and make a photographic journal of your findings to understand the people in your circles, but there are some steps you can take to become a deeper listener.
- Change the point of conversation from “agree/disagree” to “understanding.” There is no “winner” in a good conversation.
- Be comfortable with the idea that understanding doesn’t mean you agree. And that’s OK.
- Use phrases like “this is what I hear you saying” and see if they agree. If not…
- Ask clarifying questions like, “When you say _______________ do you mean ______________?” If they say “no” then keep asking. Come at it from other angles. Or ask them to rephrase what they are trying to help you understand. Don’t just assume because they spoke some words you are interpreting those words through their filter. Your filter may be different.
- Manage your own anxiety while paying attention to theirs. If they are getting anxious help them calm. You can ask: “You sound a little ________________. Is that how you are feeling?”
Or simply ask a question like “What do you have to say about all this?” In other words, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” You can take steps to walk in someone else’s shoes today. When you listen you may not agree. But you will understand. And that makes for better conversation. Question: Are you good at conversation? How can you practice better conversation today?