by Steve Adubato, PhD

I was with my friend Anthony at a party the other day. He said to me; “Steve, I’m having trouble listening. You know what I mean, that ‘active listening’ that you always talk about in your Star-Ledger columns. It’s becoming harder both at work and at home. What do you think I should do?”

I learned a while back that when a good friend, associate or anyone asks you for communication advice, not to be so quick to give it without asking a couple of questions in order to better diagnose the situation. Then, if you do have something to offer, you can make a lot more sense.

I proceeded to ask Anthony what exactly he thought was getting in the way of listening the way he wanted to. He said; “I have a million things on my mind. I’ll be talking to my wife and kids at the dinner table and I’ll be really far away in my head. My wife will say to me, ‘Hey, Anthony, you are not really listening, what’s up with you?’” He said the same thing was true at work.

As I listened to my friend describe the listening challenges he faces, it was very clear he was not alone. What he was dealing with was what we all deal with, which the late Richard Carlson called the “burden of the busy mind” in his popular “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” book series. We do have too many things in our heads. It’s hard to concentrate on one conversation at a time. There are countless distractions all around us and we carry lots of baggage into listening situations.

Even though we were at a party (talk about distractions), I got closer to Anthony, looked at him and said; “Here’s the bottom line. Until you’ve decided to actually listen—that it’s worth listening and that there is a reason to listen—everything else is just window dressing. Lots of times people confuse a desire to ‘look like’ they are listening with real listening. These two things are worlds apart. Real listening involves asking questions, following up, seeking clarification and raising objections.

My advice to Anthony was simple; “The next time you feel as if you are drifting from the conversation, ask yourself a few questions very quickly; ‘Why is this conversation potentially important?’ ‘What might I hear that could be valuable?’ ‘What would it mean to those who are talking to me if they knew I was drifting off, as opposed to being totally invested in THEM and what THEY had to say?’ And, the final question, ‘What would it feel like to be on the other end of the conversation where someone else wasn’t listening to me when I was saying something that I felt was important?’” I suggested that Anthony get more involved in the conversation quickly before he started to lose it. I told him to ask the person he was listening to; “Then what happened?” or “How did you feel about that?” The follow up questions are endless.

Finally, I said; “Anthony, lets face it. Sometimes listening is really hard. Occasionally you have to fake it in the beginning, but very often you’ll find when you do this, you will hear things that are really important. Before you know it, you will be truly be listening and caring about what’s being said.” I guess that’s where that expression “fake it till you make it” comes from.