Listening is altogether different from hearing. We can hear something without really paying attention to it. We can, for example, hear the sound of a bird, or a bell or a child's voice without attending to it. If someone were to ask us if we heard that particular sound, we may be surprised and answer in the negative.

Listening is a skill

Listening requires conscious effort. It's a skill some of us develop and others don't. We have to really ATTEND to what we hear in order to understand what our spouse or children are really trying to say to us. We may think we know, only to find out later that we didn't.

This means it's impossible to listen when we're distracted. That makes listening challenging because there are lots of distractions out there. Being busy is a distraction, worrying is a distraction, other people talking in the same room is a distraction. But perhaps the biggest distraction is our personal technology.

Some of us may be much better at engaging with our technology, posting on Facebook and texting with friends than we are at listening to our spouse and children. We may think we're good at this kind of "multi-tasking listening." But we're not. No one is. And, it's very disrespectful.

There is an inherent danger in being a casual listener

Really listening to others at home or at work is a sign of respect. It encourages more talking. When we really listen to our spouse or children, the message we're sending them is, "You are important to me." The opposite is also true. If our spouse thinks we're not listening, he may just stop talking. At least to us.

That doesn't necessarily mean that his or her needs will go unmet. What it means is that he may look for someone else who will listen. We all have a deep human need to be cared about, loved and respected. If we don't get those needs met inside our families, we'll look outside. There's the danger.

The same is true of our children. Particularly, our teenagers. As parents, we may complain that we don't really know what's going on in their lives. Or we may find ourselves surprised at something they do, or who their friends are. We wonder why they're not communicating with us. Perhaps it's because we're not really listening to them.

Teens especially may chit chat about something we as parents don't find that important or interesting. That's because teens often talk for a while to make sure we're really listening. It's one thing if your mom doesn't pay attention when you tell her what your favorite song is. It's quite another if she's not listening when you talk about who broke your heart. Or how you're being bullied at school. If teens can't trust parents to listen to the little things, they'll never share the big ones.

Do's and don'ts for being a good listener

Given how important being a good listener is to maintaining a successful relationship, what should we both do and not do to train ourselves to be better listeners?

Do give the other person your full and undivided attention

. Turn off the television or the computer, put away your cell phone and find a quiet place where just the two of you can talk.

Do check for understanding

. Say something such as "So if I heard you correctly, you said 'this' or it sounds like you are feeling 'that.'" Then, give the other person the chance to either agree or correct you.

Do listen without giving advice

. Ask your child if she has some ideas on how to resolve the issues she's discussing with you. Engage in problem solving together.

Do empathize rather than sympathize

. Empathy implies appreciating and understanding how the other person feels. It means putting yourself in his shoes. It does not mean feeling sorry for him.

Do watch for body language

. If your child says he's fine through gritted teeth, you may want to ask a few curious questions to find out how he's really feeling.

Don't get impatient and interrupt

Even if you think you know where she's going, listen attentively until she gets there.

Don't spend time thinking about what you're going to say next

. You'll miss what she's trying to tell you.

Don't be afraid of silence or long pauses

. If you find yourself compelled to fill them, you may miss what comes next.

Don't judge

. You may not agree with what the other person is telling you. You may think she's wrong or that you know best. That may not be true.

Listen both for what is said and unsaid

Talking is something that comes naturally to most of us. Especially talking about ourselves. But unless we grew up in a home where really good listening was modeled, being a good listener is a skill we need to cultivate.

Mark Twain once said, "If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear."

Let's use our two ears not just to hear but to listen. Let's listen both for what is said and what is unsaid. When we do that, we listen with the heart.

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