Dr. Jan Chozen Bays in her book How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness created an exercise she calls “Listen like a Sponge.” She describes it thus: Listen to other people as if you were a sponge, soaking up whatever the other person says. Let the mind be quiet, and just take it in. Don’t formulate any response in the mind until a response is requested or obviously needed (p. 158).”
I use this exercise in many of my workshops and trainings regardless of the topic. I don’t care if the class is on English grammar, listening, communication, supervision, customer service, or team building—everyone needs to improve his or her ability to listen and think, to open the mind, to listen and think outside the box, to take the time to listen and think without judgment, and only then to evaluate the other person’s words before speaking.
Sadly though, we do not! I know that I have been, and sometimes still am, a very poor listener. I can remember many times in the past when one of my friends would call while I was in the middle of doing something on the computer and I would be “listening” to him or her and would still be typing or “so called” multitasking at the same time. One day my girlfriend hollered out, “You’re not listening I can hear you typing in the background!” She was right, I really was not listening.
I can recall when I was a young child, needless to say I was a talker, and I would come home from school and tell my mother everything that had happened to me from the time I got on the school bus till I returned home. One day I was sharing my story while my mother was peeling potatoes at the sink and I asked her a question. Much to my chagrin she did not answer. So I asked the question just a little bit louder, and once again she did not answer. So I gave a third try, and still no response. So I yelled out, “Mother you’re not listening!” She spun around with potato peeler in hand and said, “If I listened to all five of you kids every time you talked I’d be in the nut house already!”
Wow, what a rude awakening I had that not everything I had to say, or every thought I had in my head was important or needed to be said out loud! However, if my quiet and shy sister had come in and said something I am sure that my mother would have spun around with potato peeler in hand and listened intently. Why? Because she only spoke when absolutely necessary, she was slight on words and expressed herself often through drawing and art. At one time in my life I thought she might even become a famous cartoonist.
So how good are you at listening? Dr. Bays goes on to write, “Good psychotherapists use absorptive listening. They are attuned to the subtle changes in tone or quality of voice that indicate something deeper than the words, even belying the words, a sticking place, hidden tears or anger that needs to be explored (159).” How many times have you greeted someone in the morning and said, “How are things going today?” Their response was “fine” or “okay.” And then later in the day you found out from someone that the person was not “fine” or “okay” and that something tragic, or sad, or painful had happened to him or her.
How could you have missed it–because you did not listen like a sponge. You did not, as the good psychotherapists encourage us to do, use absorptive listening; you did not focus on the deepness of the words, the tone of the words, the hidden tears in his or her eyes. Indeed, you may not have made eye contact with him or her at all!
The opposite is also true, you may have found out that something fabulous, fun, or life changing in a positive way had happened to him or her. Yet, you were so engrossed in not listening or seeing the joy that you only found out about it from a co-worker or friend after your initial cursory/obligatory greeting in the morning.
Dr. Bays asks us to think about how many times we “check-out” while someone is speaking. In the middle of a conversation you’re thinking about your grocery list, or what you are going to have for lunch, or about that golf game you played on Saturday. Being a great listener is not easy! But it is imperative if you want to be a good friend, family member, teacher, boss, employee, counselor, minister, store clerk, or gardener.
To be a good listener we have to “want” to listen. We have to find something to focus our attention on, to find some good reason to listen. I remember many years ago I had this wonderfully intelligent minister who was a master teacher of metaphysics, yet every Sunday I found his talks to be disjointed, jumping from one idea to another without any links or connections as to how he got from one thought to the other. I began to “not listen” to be thinking “I wonder when this is going to be over so we can go to brunch.” Then one day I found something important in his talk that changed something for the better in my life and I was so glad I had listened at that moment.
I learned a great lesson that day, and from that day forward I made a plan to become a better listener. I set a goal for myself that each Sunday I would listen wholeheartedly to find one gem, one diamond amongst those words that could potentially change my life, or help me deal with a challenge in my life, or to help a friend or family member over a hill they were trying to climb. And guess what? I did and I could. From that day forward every Sunday I found some simple words of wisdom in his talk that made my life easier, better, happier, or simply gave me a chuckle or a laugh. My life was ever changed for the better!
You too can learn to “listen like a sponge.” What does a sponge do anyway? It absorbs everything that comes its way. I encourage you to make a sign to put over your desk and on your bathroom mirror that simply says, “listen like a sponge” and whenever you see it ask yourself—how absorbent have I been today!
Hey, I wish you good luck with that…did you hear me? Good luck with that…
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