The lost art of listening

Hello, my name is Lance, and I have listening problem.

This week I attended one of those four-hour workplace training sessions on emotional intelligence. It included an exercise on active listening. I was horrible.

listening device
Maybe someone at Tech could invent something like this to help me listen better.

The humiliating experience caused me to reexamine a fundamental assumption about myself. Deep down, I believe that I have pretty good emotional intelligence. I feel like I know myself and can read people pretty well. I know how to make eye contact and affirm people when they talk.

Except I don’t.

The examples of my failures to listen are starting to pile up.

Two weeks ago during dinner, my 12-year-old son had to confiscate my iPhone because I was texting during dinner. Talk about role reversal!

Last weekend, while driving to see my in-laws in Sandersville, Carla said an entire paragraph of information that I completely missed. I suspect I had dozed off.

And now, with the pressure on and in an intentional exercise to practice active listening, the best I could do was nod and say “Hmmm….”

Pathetic.

This experience reminded me of a time earlier in my marriage when I first became aware that I cannot listen if a television is on anywhere in my vicinity. When you first begin cohabitating with someone in the throes of marital bliss, you hang on their every syllable. But after a while, words, sentences and even entire monologues can go by, particularly if there’s a ballgame on.

Robert Mankoff New Yorker cartoon
This Robert Mankoff cartoon from The New Yorker is all too true.

Earlier in my marriage after a particularly bad run of non-listening, I sought the advice of my travel companions during a car trip across Missouri. From Harold, the trained minister, I got words of wisdom and reassurance about “focus and priorities.” From Ben, my boss and mentor who had taught me much in my career, I got: “Well, maybe she just needs to say fewer or more important things.”

Fast forward a few weeks when my inattention reoccurred. Guess which pithy saying popped into my head to answer a barrage of accusations? Yep, the wrong one. Like a scene from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” I tried to retract the words as they were coming out of my mouth.

Although Carla swears she doesn’t remember the exchange today, I do, and I can tell you unequivocally, don’t ever say anything like that to your spouse … or anyone.

What causes my distraction and what’s the cure?

To no one’s surprise, one of the biggest culprit’s in the New South is technology. Barron was right to take away my phone. I have done the same thing to him. Conversations are the building blocks of good relationships, and as we enter the teen years with our children, they are essential. I have to learn to turn the screens off.

Another culprit is busyness and preoccupation. If I’m busy rushing off to a meeting after church, it’s nearly impossible for me to focus on the person trying to share an important concern. Being in the moment and being with the person in front of you is a discipline.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to self-absorption. I find it hard to listen because I am inside my own head way too much. I don’t know about you, but I’m bombarded with thoughts on everything from what I’m going to say next to my to-do list. And if someone is sharing a problem, I think about possible solutions, rather than displaying empathy, letting them share their feelings and affirming them.

Here’s how the course I took described passive vs. active listening:

active vs. passive listening chartAdmitting you have a problem is the first step. You, the loyal readers of New South Essays, are my support group. Hold me accountable. If you catch me not listening, call me on it.

Now stop reading this blog and go listen to someone important to you. You may find that you also have some work to do in the listening department.

What annoys you most about people not listening? Is it the ever-present smart phone or tablet screen? Are you a good listener? How do you do it? What techniques might help the rest of us non-listeners? Leave a comment and help in my recovery. It takes all of us.

What I love about Mom

In the South – old or new – we love our mothers. It’s the right thing to do, and even in those rare circumstances when it may be difficult, a child’s bond with his or her mother lasts a lifetime.

Mom, Dad and their bundle of joy
Mom and Dad, circa 1970 with their bundle of joy. Because of my mother’s attentiveness, legend has it I was the cleanest baby every born. Bathed and washed three or four times a day.

As I age my relationship is changing with my mom. It is growing and deepening as I face the challenge of parenting three boys, just as she did… does.

So this Mother’s Day I offer a review of what I love about my mom. Maybe you’ll recognize some of these traits in your mother. Maybe they are unique to my mom. In either case, these are worth stating. I don’t tell her often enough.

She is smart. A retired math teacher, Mom was always available to help me figure out the mental puzzle that is higher math. I’m sure she had moments of frustration at my inability to grasp proofs, polynomials, derivatives and the proper application of the Quadratic Formula. But beyond mathematics, she has life intelligence. Wisdom. She is pragmatic and makes good decisions. When I discuss a quandary with her, she always sees angles I haven’t thought of. She is a good problem solver.

She is loving. We’ve never really been a very demonstrative family when it comes to showing affection. Maybe it’s all the boys, but Mom still gives her hugs and makes sure we know she loves us. She shows her support in lots of ways, not the least of which is “liking” every photo, post and blog entry I offer up through social media. It’s her way of posting my artwork on the refrigerator. I know not every New South Essay appeals to her, but she’s always showing her support and letting me know she’s paying attention. I’m sure it’s not easy to find ways to say “I love you” when you’ve got boys who make a joke of everything. She finds ways to make her true feelings known, and that gives me strength and confidence, even at age 41.

She is unselfish. Mom doesn’t have to get her way. In fact, she’s probably more comfortable not getting her way if it means someone else is happy. Now that I’m a parent, I have realized that she probably didn’t want to eat at McDonald’s all those times, and birthday parties at skating rinks and Chuck E. Cheese probably weren’t her favorite destinations. A person of deep faith, Mom lives out her convictions in a way that clearly demonstrates her priorities. She possesses genuine humility and seeks the benefit of others. Before she retired, I have known her to arrive early and stay late after school for weeks on end to help struggling students – even the students who drove her crazy with classroom antics and disrespect for authority. She has gone without so her three boys wouldn’t have to.

Mom with her grandkids
Mom is proud of her grandkids, but it’s raising her three boys that requires the most work.

She is patient. Being a preacher’s wife is about the most difficult role a person can take on in life. Expectations are as demanding as the president of the United States. Hours are long and thankless. Effort is unrewarded. Commitment is unnoticed. Talent is taken for granted. Add being a school teacher and a mother to the list and you have the trifecta of patience. Only in adulthood has she ever expressed frustration to me or given me any indication that she is ever upset. Her smile has been her defense, her outlet for what I’m sure are complex emotions.

She listens. As I struggle to practice this discipline with my own children (“Umm-hmmm… then what did Sponge Bob do?”) I have grown in appreciation of my mother’s keen listening ability. She lets me vent without offering comment, share my important moments and small victories and offer analysis on situations that are none of my business. Her listening validates me. When I have needed correction, she hasn’t failed to do so with compassion and gentleness. Her listening helps me verbalize and sort out the circumstances that trouble me. She has unspoken thoughts, and I could stand to learn from her restraint. She is an example of how listening strengthens relationships.

My list could go on and on, but as I forced myself to focus on five, it became clear to me that my mom is a remarkable, multidimensional person. I appreciate her more with every passing year. Next year, the list could be completely different and still just as valid.

Thanks Mom, for being who you are. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day!

What do you love about your mom? See how your list matches up with mine by sharing your thoughts in a comment below.