It’s fairly obvious when someone is being a less than stellar listener. Maybe it’s the fact that they ask you a question you just answered. Or their constant glancing at their phone while saying “uh-huh” in a completely uninterested manner to your story. So we go about our days knowing when people aren’t listening well to us…but do we recognize when we are being poor listeners? Do we ever reflect on our own style, patterns, and understanding of effective listening?
Listening, true listening, is an art. It takes more than our eyes, our nods, our ‘uh-huhs.”
It takes more than a mere understanding of words.
It’s a complex communication form that requires us to involve all 5 of our senses to not just grasp, but better understand, the person.
If we want to understand another culture, we have to be better at listening. We have to learn to recognize body language. We have to learn to assign new meaning to old symbols. We have to learn to put aside our own attempts at conversation to really understand.
There are 2 ways in which we listen: we either listen to understand or we listen to respond. This is not my idea, by the way – I listened to a fabulous Tedx Talk by Katie Owens that described the art of ‘active listening’ (watch here if you’re interested).
And how often are we listening to respond? We are formulating our next sentence, our next story, our next big argument. Rather, if we listen to understand, we aren’t formulating anything in our head. All of our attention, all of our focus, all of our senses are engulfed in actively listening to the person across from us. Thus, when we do have time to respond thanks to a gap in conversation, we have a question to ask that progresses the conversation, or we have our own story/idea/statement that reflects upon what was just said.
So task 1 – be a better listener. Stop listening with the intent of responding and, instead, listen with the intent of understanding. How many arguments would be limited if we all took this to heart always?!
Okay, so at this point maybe it’s nothing new to you. And maybe you’re wondering how this idea ended up on an experiential travel blog.
Here’s the crux: if you’re experientially travelling, your desire is to better understand the culture through which you are sojourning. Understanding requires listening. “Better” understanding requires “better” listening. So we need to listen better. And we need to listen differently.
See, when you are talking to your spouse or your partner or your friend and half-listening and half-texting and half-thinking through your next story to talk about…you’re probably doing an alright job of understanding because you know that person.
Insert a new context, a new country, a new language, a new culture…you can’t assume that you do understand. In the most obvious sense, we might miss meanings through incorrect words. In a much more nuanced sense, we need to be fully aware, with each sense open, to grasp all that is around us.
Let me give you one illustration: HEROES. You can learn a lot about a country by looking at their recognized heroes. Hero is the same English word to all of us, and yet the meaning that word takes is quite different (in cross-cultural communication speak this is what we would describe as assigning a new meaning to an old/shared symbol). By listening for these differences, we can get to know a country much better. Examples of noted Canadian heroes? Terry Fox, who attempted (and died having almost completed!) to run across the country with one artificial leg to raise money for cancer research. Tommy Douglas, who created our universal health care system. You can glean so much about Canadian values and beliefs just by listening to our understanding of the word “hero.”
In cross-cultural communication we focus on non-verbal vs. verbal communication and ways to communicate when a common language is unavailable. In my view, we would all do well to equally focus on our listening skills.
Let’s not just listen to respond. Let’s listen to understand.
Happy listening and happy travelling dear readers!