Dear Ivy: Listen

My Dear Ivy,

As you’ve probably figured out from the six letters I’ve written you before this one, relationships are important to me. I wanted to talk to you today about one of the pitfalls that can damage – even derail – those relationships.
I touched on this a bit in yesterday’s letter when I mentioned the difference between knowing about someone, and truly knowing them.

In today’s world, with the right tools and motivation, any old random stranger can learn pretty much all there is to know about you. Heck, most of it is stuff we put out there voluntarily, or perhaps without even knowing it, via various online platforms. Knowing about somebody is easy. Knowing them takes work.

One of the most important parts of that work is to listen.

This gets back to what I said a couple of letters back about empathy. There’s a tool we talk about a lot in professional communication, called “active listening.” According to one common definition, active listening “requires the listener to fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said.”

Personally, I like to think of this definition of “active listening” as . . . well . . . listening.

Another definition of active listening notes that it is “listening with the intent to understand, not to respond.”

And it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Note well what this definition of listening isn’t. It’s not the simple act of registering the fact that they’re making sounds. It’s not absorbing what they’re saying with the intent to respond  either positively or negatively. That means listening with the intent to debate somebody isn’t really listening. But neither is listening with the intent to jump in and pose a response.

Sounds a lot like what I said earlier about empathy, doesn’t it? There’s a reason for that.

Without listening, in this sense, it’s impossible to foster a real connection like we talked about in my last letter. Gathering information about someone, debating issues, discussing solutions, and even disconnecting and getting some breathing space when needed, all have their place. But trust me, they all become easier when they’re built on a deep and solid foundation of true connection. And the only way to build that connection is by really listening.

One of the things your mom has taught me (though there are times she’d probably debate whether or not it’s something I’ve actually learned all that well), is that listening means asking questions. It’s one thing to hear the words someone is saying, and another to absorb enough to understand and engage with what’s being said. But true connection – the kind that really listens – digs deeper, asking follow-up questions and probing to learn more.

That’s the sort of thing you can’t get in the asynchronous world of social media – the real-time connection and engagement of a true back and forth. Oh, sure, you can go back and forth in discussions (and God knows, I enjoy doing that), but it’s all curated, edited, sanitized, and refined. It’s not real . . . not in the sense that a conversation is. There’s no body language to it, no expression, no real-time feedback. Sure, it’s connection, of a sort. But it’s a very sterile one.

And yes, listening is important even in such an inferior medium. You can still practice the same “active listening” ideals of genuinely absorbing what is being said, of listening to engage rather than rebut, of practicing empathy. Those are all important, regardless of the context. But they’re so much more important – because they’re so much more valuable -when you’ve managed to truly connect with someone at the deep level we’re talking about here. 

Remember what I said in an earlier letter about people being more important than ideas? I’ve spent most of my adult life debating ideas. I did so competitively in college. And since then I’ve had to do a lot of work “unlearning” what I learned, because there are times when it’s all too easy to let the debate over ideas bleed into your connection with people. Ideas – some of them, at least – are worth debating, but there comes a time to look past the idea and see the person behind it.

And on that note, I need to apologize again. Because again, this stuff is really hard. I wish I could say I’ve “unlearned” all the lessons about how to listen with the intent to respond and rebut. But in truth, that unlearning is a constant process, and it’s not always as smooth as I’d like it to be.

If my relationships with your brother and sister are any indication, by the time you read this, there will be plenty of times when I failed to listen to you, too. I need you to know that what you have to say is important, and valuable, and that I am genuinely interested in it, and in you. And sometimes I won’t do a very good job of showing that. Sometimes I’ll be distracted, or tired, or working on something else. And that means sometimes I won’t listen. And I’m sorry for that, because you deserve better.

What I can promise you here, as I have done in other letters, is that I will always seek to do better – seek to actively and openly listen to what you have to say – seek to not just tell you, but show you, how much I value you and my relationship with you.

I love you.


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