Unification News for

December 1997


The Art of Listening

by David Kasbow-Detroit, MI

It’s ironic that in a society that is bombarded with information, where people get degrees in "communication," that an essential part of this communication, listening, is a lost art. It may be good sometimes to tune out the technological devices surrounding us, but when we tune out other people, we lose something valuable. When we listen to others at all it is usually with the purpose of responding with our own viewpoint. We are usually either speaking or preparing to speak. In this mode, nothing gets accomplished because the words go out and are lost. One reason it may be so hard is that we are never taught how to listen. In the world of communication skills, we are taught to write and to talk. We are also taught to read, which is a kind of listening, but we are never taught how to listen to others as they communicate directly to us. This is a tragedy, because listening to others is extremely powerful and extremely effective. We know the experience that when people laugh at our jokes we become funnier and funnier, and if they do not, the jokes in us weaken and sputter out. When someone listens to us, we unfold, create and grow. We know the principle of it: subject and object are both necessary for anything to exist. Who is the person you like to talk to? The one who has an opinion about everything (another subject) or the one who takes time to listen to what you have to say (an object)?

In relationships, listening is lacking especially by men, whether they be husbands, fathers or sons. We tend to be the problem solvers, we tend to "do" rather than to "be". It’s why men are lonelier than women, I think. Unless you listen, you don’t really know people. You don’t let them into your life.

It was Carl Rogers who popularized listening as a therapeutic tool. He named his approach to therapy "Client Centered." It is now the basis for most therapy. It stemmed from his belief that each individual has the desire and ability to grow and to solve his or her own problems. He believed that people have everything they need, and can do this well, if provided the right kind of environment, a supportive environment he called "Unconditional Positive Regard" (or what I would call unconditional love). During World War II, he trained the thousands of counselors needed to help returning veterans. He took lay people and taught them to create this kind of environment through listening. This gave them the ability to be a healing influence for others quite effectively. In sessions with clients, I am still amazed that just being there helps them. I may not answer any question, or give any insight, or solve any problem in a session, but they will say that the time spent together has been good and helpful.

The key technique of listening is deciding to be actively there for the other person more than for yourself. Steven Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, encourages us to "seek to understand before we are understood." The goal is to not give your viewpoint, but to really understand the other person; to be able to walk in his or her shoes as closely as you can. Listening sounds like a passive enterprise, but it is actually hard work. Covey says that the result of this work gives the other person "psychological air." It meets a vital need in the person: to be appreciated for who they are; to be affirmed as a person; to really exist! There is a common expression, "I need my own space." But to really have this, we need another to be there also.

Once you can get in the space of being there for the other person, listening can be taken to an even higher level by being "reflective," being able to respond to the other person in such a way that you know where they are internally. This is done by simply reflecting back to the person the emotion underlying their words. When a person tells you his boss is an idiot, don’t tell him, "Well, why don’t you quit?" Don’t tell him, "You should not have this kind of attitude" and don’t even ask him "Why?" Instead, simply reflect back, "You sound angry." Be with him emotionally in the moment. I guarantee that he already knows he should not have this attitude, and actually, he already has some sense of what he should do. What he doesn’t have, which you can give, is the freedom to work his problem out in a non-judgmental, trusted environment, the "unconditional positive regard" mentioned above. When you can do this, people will open up, telling you things they would not say to anyone. The benefits will come back to you in the trust you gain and the bonds you create.

David Kasbow has an MRE from UTS and an MA in Clinical Psychology from Loyola College. He is currently the Michigan Family Church state leader, and works in both a clinic and private practice. He and his wife live in Livonia, Michigan.

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