Listen and be better heard

How do you get someone who is not listening to you to begin to do so?  Not by repeating yourself.  Not by talking louder.  Not even by reframing your message.  The best way to get someone to hear you when they are reluctant to do so, is for you to listen to them better.   Listening is a gift.  When we sense that we’re being heard, our reflex is to return the favor.

The challenge, of course, is that listening can be painful.  Listening to someone of a different political persuasion can be impossible.  But the absence of listening in polemical settings does not reduce our appetite for it.

The Torah esteems listening.  The Shema prayer invites and expects listening.  This week’s portion of Torah includes the second of the Shema’s three passages.  Among its opening words we hear, “eem shamoah teesh-m’u”, conventionally translated “if you listen exceedingly well” (Deut. 11:13).  But if we set aside the particulars of biblical grammar, we can detect traces of listening as a refined expression of favor exchange.  “If you listen (eem shamoah), they will listen (teesh-m’u).

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to distinguish between confirmatory and exploratory thinking.  The vast majority of today’s data confirms and conforms with our thinking.  Yet we still enjoy exploring.  Nature hikes and August getaways nourish this important dimension of our being.

Exploration shouldn’t only happen when we’re on vacation.  We often find ourselves in settings with speakers – from plenaries to lectures, from TED talks to talk radio.  Studies show that three things make a speaker more likely to be heard in an explorative manner.  When she 1) knows she is accountable for what she says, 2) when she does not know the views of her audience, and 3) when she knows that her listeners are well informed and interested in accuracy.  In other words, she is listened to with greater interest because she has listened to her audience with esteem.

As we seek to deepen friendships and to restore fractured ones, may our path to closure be by way of disclosure, and may mutual listening pave the way.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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