As nurses, we could all agree that listening to other people is important. After a 38 year career in nursing, I thought I was a good listener. I did what I felt was important during the conversation for the speaker to know I was listening. I looked directly at the person talking. I nodded my head. I interjected appropriate comments. After taking a class in mediation, I am not so sure people talking to me felt listened to. The first lesson in my new approach to listening came last week. I was given the assignment of listening like a cow.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“When you talk to them, cows cock their big brown eyes and twitch their ears giving the appearance of deep, openhearted attention. In other words, they don’t talk.” My instructor answered. (This idea was taken from Mary Rose O’Reilly ‘s 1998 piece, Radical Presence.)
After a week of listening to others speak without saying a word myself, I discovered more than I ever wanted to know about how I listen:
1. I listen to understand. Even if I don’t interrupt, I ask a lot of questions. Because it is more important to me that I understand what is said than if the person speaking to me feels like I’ve heard them.
2. While someone else is talking I am judging what they are saying. Do I agree with them or not? I am thinking more about what my experience has been about the subject they are talking about than focusing on them.
3. I may only hear part of what they are saying because I am already formulating a response in my head. If I agree, then I have a story ready to tell them that makes them know I am on their side. If I disagree, my arguments have been framed before they have finished their last word. If the subject is heated, I will probably interrupt before they are done, so I can get my opinion in.
OK, so I listen more like a jack rabbit on steroids; Ready to jump in and attack and then hop away at any moment. But I’m learning. As part of the class, I quietly listened to someone talk for five minutes. That was difficult. I was so used to interrupting to get my two cents in. Then I learned to reflect back to the speaker what I thought they were saying. Much to my surprise, she felt heard and even started solving her issue without my input. It was so much easier than what I had been doing. Maybe I need to learn to listen like a cow more often. How about you?