The older I get the more I see the wisdom in this maxim. Listen to everyone. Don’t just smile and nod, but listen.
As some one who is a very quick learner, I spent countless hours itching to get started on assignments or tests, having read the instructions myself, but forced to wait while the teacher spent 15 minutes on directions and trouble shooting tips for the rest of the class. That attitude has carried over into other aspects of my life and I hate to admit it, but I’m often chomping at the bit, waiting for people to get to their point or to relay the information that I need to I get on with things. (Patience is a virtue, and it’s one I am working on.) This attitude excludes quality listening.
As a parent I’ve learned to listen in entirely new ways. Much of American culture completely ignores kids’ needs and desires. In fact, advertising to children is designed to cause them to nag their parents (I see nagging as a symptom of poor communication and listening). Learning to listen to my kids has taught me so much. I have learned to listen to body language in an entirely new way, since children must express themselves physically until they learn to speak. Even in the first years of language learning they are still expressing themselves non-verbally a great deal of the time. And what they are expressing is often of great value. Really and truly listening means we often can avoid pitfalls before it’s too late – for example, ‘Mama, my tummy hurts.’ My kids know I’m going to stop and listen, not just assume they don’t know what they’re talking about and continue on. We’ve saved getting covered in puke several times! But I’ve also learned more about how my children work and think, and that knowledge opens my mind to new ideas and creativity, too.
It’s much harder for me to listen to people I don’t respect, those who aren’t particularly articulate, or who refuse to communicate. If I can slow myself up, I find that not making assumptions on someone else’s part can ease our communication – as well as move things along more smoothly and quickly! Listening is a sign of respect, too. Even those who refuse to communicate are communicating something. In fact, those who can’t communicate well are often those to whom extra efforts ought to be given. The articulate and those with the resources to make their voices heard can do so – but those you can’t need us to listen a little more closely.
I think this maxim is one of enlightened self-interest. While I am often not genuinely interested in what every person has to say, I still recognize the value of listening (even if I’m still not very good at that in every situation). Listening builds allies, helps solve problems with solutions that work for more than just a few people, and creates an environment where people feel safe to express themselves. That’s an environment I’d like to exist in.
This listening also extends to our non-human world too. That’s advanced listening! Just learning to listen to other humans is hard work! Hopefully, once we start practicing listening to the humans around us, we can start learning to listen to what the other inhabitants of our communities are telling us.