You Can’t Talk and Listen at the Same Time

We’re often asked how we write our blogs together. We create two separate drafts and then merge them. If they’re complementary, we interleave them; if they’re saying the same thing, we blend them. But sometimes they’re both so distinct that we offer both voices. That’s what we’re doing today.

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“You can’t talk and listen at the same time.” What are the implications for relationships if we take this as a given? It is generally recognized, and certainly each of us can attest to it, that we all want to be seen and heard. We want to be acknowledged for who we really are. For others to do this, or conversely for us to offer this to our partners, we have to learn how to actually listen and to hear what is being shared.

talk2What does it mean to actually listen and hear and how do we do it? One of the first requirements is the desire and the intent to do so. We have to want to hear and understand the person communicating with us. For this to happen, we have to be able to put aside our preoccupation with ourselves long enough for someone else’s presence to occupy us.

This may sound simple at first, but it is often not as easy as one would think. Most people pass a lot of time with their mind filled with thoughts, ideas, problems they are solving and the work they need to accomplish. The mind is busy talking, even when the lips are not moving. This type of talking makes listening just as impossible as when our words are spoken aloud.

Once we have the desire and the intent to listen and truly hear our partner, we must also know how to still the chatter in our minds and to be present with the person we are listening to. This involves emptying our own thoughts to make room for another’s. If while you are attempting to listen, you are preparing what you are going to say, shaping an answer or a rebuttal of some kind, then you are not hearing anything but yourself.

Luckily, the rewards of truly listening are so great that they can act as a carrot to get us to listen and hear. When a person feels listened to and heard, they will respond in kind. It is natural to be more intimate and share more with someone you feel is truly wanting to know what you are saying and appreciating what you have to contribute. It is also a wonderful addition to hear another’s point of view, feelings and concerns. We often experience a great enrichment when we allow this to occur.

There is much to be gained in every relationship by practicing active listening. It is easiest in our intimate relationships where we do not have to be defended and where we are most likely to be present with our attention. Take the time to practice this with your partner and let it carry forward into your relationships in general. The effort is small and the rewards are great.

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talk1You can’t talk and listen at the same time. It seems obvious, but a lot follows from that. Firstly, if you’re in a dialog, you have to stop talking sometimes. Not only that, you have to stop preparing to talk, i.e. thinking about what you’re going to say next, because then you’re giving little or no attention to what the other person is saying. You need to focus not just on the words but on the feelings that lie behind the words and what those feelings are defending. A discussion about whether to spend money on a kitchen renovation might reflect earlier times of money hardships, a need to raise social status with the neighbors or a desire to have a stove that heats evenly.

And that brings us to the other side of the dialog: talking. Your words are a proxy for your feelings, but that’s not always obvious. By asking yourself why you hold a position, you can dig deeper and be clearer both to yourself and the other person. It’s not always easy. You may find embarrassment, guilt, shame, envy or any number of uncomfortable truths, yet truths they are, and owning them is the route to knowing yourself. It’s also the route to intimacy, because by showing yourself in such a way, you make yourself vulnerable and invite empathy. Of course, it’s not an exercise to practice with strangers lest they take advantage of your weaknesses; it is something you do progressively as trust develops.

A result of becoming conscious of and articulating the feelings of both people is that the original ideas are no longer sacrosanct; instead, other ways to assuage feelings can be explored. Through this process, people can come to resolutions that truly reflect their needs.

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3 comments on “You Can’t Talk and Listen at the Same Time
  1. Margie says:

    “Of course, it’s not an exercise to practice with strangers lest they take advantage of your weaknesses; it is something you do progressively as trust develops.”

    I really appreciate this caution, Phil, as I have experienced when trusting too soon.

    Excellent piece by both of you. The hardest thing for me is to listen when I’m sure he hasn’t truly heard what I’ve said.

  2. Marc Wong says:

    Good stuff.

    To listen is to put someone else’s speaking, thinking, and feeling needs first. Too often we put ourselves first by defending, accusing, or ignoring.

    Dialog occurs not when people take turns to talk, but when they take turns to listen.

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