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Connecting with people sometimes requires a little extra effort. It takes a willingness not only to pay attention to who they are but also to see yourself – to be better aware of yourself and how you’re interacting with others. For me, that process has taken a lifetime – and it’s still going on.

For most of my life I’ve realized that listening is one of those things that makes connection possible. People generally want others to listen to them – to acknowledge them and to value what they have to say. Listening is an essential element of communication. But as a listener, sitting there silently being a good audience isn’t enough. To truly communicate you have to be engaged – you not only pay attention to someone but respond meaningfully to what is said. That’s what’s called active listening.

What does it mean to actively listen? It means being responsive and asking questions to draw out those you’re listening to. It means allowing them to feel they have a safe place to say what they need to say. It means not being so anxious to make your own point that you seize the conversation and direct it according to some fixed agenda of your own.

One of the experiences in my life that really helped me to develop my active listening skills was being a moderator in a series of local issue-oriented discussions called β€œDemocracy Unplugged”. Several friends and I got together and decided that the way issues are presented by the news media didn’t give people the opportunity to be involved in the process of being fully informed. We set up a forum where participants -- political candidates, academics and social change advocates -- with a variety of viewpoints, some diametrically opposed, discussed a variety of current topics. The idea was to give audience members the opportunity to engage these advocates through questions they could submit – a direct, in-person process that circumvented print and electronic media – hence the term β€œunplugged”.

As moderator I was charged with making sure the participants were given the opportunity to present their positions, but I also needed to interact and ask relevant questions. Through this experience, I developed the ability to listen to what was said with the goal of clarifying their positions and facilitating dialog between them. My role as moderator required me to remain neutral and unbiased, yet focused on assisting those involved to make their case.

I found that this skill was useful in other circumstances – in my informal interactions. Active listening has become, for me, a vital way of establishing a rapport and enhancing my connection with those I engage. When I find myself interacting with a group of people, I try to remain very conscious of what others are saying. The experience of communicating within a group is different than most one-on-one exchanges. The dynamics can shift more rapidly, and in some cases some people have a lot more to say than others – or at least more of an urgency to say what’s on their mind.

To create a satisfying group experience means everyone has a chance to talk -- and to listen. It requires empathy – an awareness of everyone’s feelings and a commitment, to some extent, to make sure everybody feels included. At the same time, we need to honor the desire on the part of others to be silent if that’s what they wish. People shouldn’t be dragged into a conversation that they aren’t moved to be a part of more actively.

Active listening in its most effective form is intuitive – it shouldn’t be calculating and overthought. We need to make sure we really are listening and allowing our perceptions of those we’re interacting with to change as we learn more about them. There needs to be a fluidity to the exchange where ideas intermingle and shape each other throughout the process. This is the essence of true communication.

Over the years I’ve found that my active listening skills have helped me in my work and in my other relationships. It’s remarkable how appreciative people are of having someone listen to them – to really listen -- forming the basis of friendship and the kind of mutual supportiveness that enriches our lives and leads to a better world overall. It’s something that I can do to both make a meaningful contribution and find more personal joy and satisfaction. And it’s also something that can be shared by living it and doing it so others can see how beneficial it could be in their own lives.

Want to find out more about active listening? Check out this article.

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Michael – I can't think of one specific incident, but in my workplace I had to field calls from employees and pensioners regarding their healthcare and pensions. It was very important that they knew I was listening to them – that their concerns were being addressed.

Often they were very distressed about how the insurance companies treated them, which could be very impersonal and bureaucratic, or whether they were going to receive their pension checks on time. It was my responsibility to act as a go-between and an advocate for them. By letting them know that I understood and cared about them I helped ease their minds and relieved their anxiety. It was not only good business – that was actually secondary for me -- but a way to show my concern and to alleviate suffering.

I feel this is an important goal in life generally. It is one way to give our livelihoods meaning, regardless of how otherwise meaningless they might seem. We always have an opportunity to make things better if we are mindful of when those opportunities arise.

Roger Balson
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