A skill we need to use more often: listening

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

What the world needs now is not just love, sweet love, but listening – kind listening. If more people would listen attentively to others, the world would have less loneliness and anger and more peace and harmony.

Listening sounds easy. We do it every day. Our ears are always open. People talk to us all the time. But the kind of listening we need, the listening that could accomplish so much, is hard and rare.

There is a worldwide movement to practice empathic listening. Last year, for example, Great Britain created a new cabinet position, a “Minister of Loneliness.” The British prime minister explained her country needed to “address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by caregivers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

That describes the loneliness felt by millions of Americans. In big cities and small towns, many people feel isolated, with few opportunities to talk to people who’ll actually listen.

Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology, wrote recently in National Review, “The paradox of modern social life is that the more technology affords people ways to stay connected to loved ones and make new connections with others all over the globe, the more disconnected and lonely we may be becoming.”

Among those who need attentive, emphatic listening are people with strong political opinions. That doesn’t mean politicians, but persons who have definite ideas about where their county is headed.

It’s easy to “hear” these ideas, but harder to actually listen to them – especially if you hold an opposite opinions. Then, instead of listening, we’re usually thinking about how we’ll respond and refute. Without attentive and empathic listening, there is little chance for people who see life from different perspectives, and without that ability it’s hard to reach any kind of compromise. Perhaps that explains why so little is accomplished in Congress.

In my career in education, I’ve visited many colleges and visited with many faculty and staff members. I’ve made it a point not to talk little and listen more. I simply ask people to tell me what they’re feeling. They usually respond by thanking me and adding, “Nobody around here seems to listen to me.”

I don’t expect things to change in Washington, but they could change in homes, neighborhoods, schools and communities (like Los Banos) even if just one person at a time.

It won’t be easy. Good listening – active, attentive, empathic listening – is difficult; it requires patience and understanding.

Active listeners must focus on the person talking. They need to put themselves into the other person’s skin and understand the background, context and feelings of the talker.

Good listeners should assure the talker that they’re paying attention. Nonverbal ques, like making eye contact or leaning into the conversation or from time to time repeating in different words, are effective.

Empathic listeners need to focus their energy on absorbing what the talker is saying, not judging or even solving, but responding in ways that show you’ve truly heard the words. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

One day I was listening to a colleague who was telling me about a problem she was having at work. After awhile, I started to propose a solution when she interrupted, saying, “I didn’t come for solutions. I just wanted you to hear me out.”

Imagine a community in which active listening was practiced by people who recognized the importance of listening well. Elderly people living alone would be visited by folks who, by listening empathically, acknowledge the value of their existence.

People of different political viewpoints, after listening attentively, might say, “I didn’t realize what you’ve been going through,” or “We have more in common than I thought.” This could lead to solutions or agreement on issues to benefit all concerned.

If I could wish for one resolution for Los Banosans in 2019 (it’s still not too late to make a good resolution), it would be to listen actively and emphatically often. And if Los Banosans could do that, maybe other Californians and other Americans could, too.

IN MEMORIAM – Los Banos lost another exceptional woman when Debbie Martinez passed away. Debbie was a superb tennis player and excellent physical education teacher. She was also tough. Years ago, for example, after I played tennis on a warm summer morning and quit because of the heat, Debbie and her husband Joe would show up and begin playing as the temperature approached 100. Debbie was undaunted.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email john.spevak@gmail.com.