Sunday, April 9, 2017
When you’re an introvert, it’s easy to get overconfident about your listening abilities. It may seem an odd thing to strut over, but it’s true. Those on the extroverted side of the scale are rewarded with verbal ease and high energy; our introverted realm is the land of listening and reflection, and we sit proudly on our quiet thrones.
The breezy dichotomies start to fall apart, however, when we go deeper into the practice of true listening. I am not actually convinced that listening comes naturally for anyone, of any temperament. True listening is an act of selflessness, a work of ego surrender, and most humans don’t do those things instinctually. Now, if we define listening as sitting quietly while another person speaks, then yes, introverts have the upper hand. We are the masters of the quiet sit. Providing the air space for others to share is the first step, and we may have a head start here.
The worst listeners are easy to identify, because they are unable even to get this far. We all know people like this. They dominate conversations, performing soliloquies in our presence like windy Shakespearean characters, and they have little ability to gauge our interest level in their chosen topic. They are strangely impervious to the glassy-eyed stares of their captive audience.
Those who yammer on like radio talk show hosts are the easy targets of bad listening, but there are many more culprits of a subtler variety. This is where we introverts may not be the natural listeners we think we are. We may be adept at creating the outward space for others, but we may assume that in showing up and closing our mouths we have thereby done our job as listeners. We have removed the outward distractions, but the problem is that our heads continue to buzz with a myriad of inward distractions.
I believe that listening is the truest form of hospitality, which is good news for those of us who don’t relish opportunities to invite groups of people into our homes. To me, the best hosts are not those who throw spirited dinner parties, as enjoyable as those can be, the best hosts are listeners, those who welcome others into their minds, hearts, and souls. That is true hospitality, the meeting place for healing and empathy. Creating the outward space is absolutely essential because it is the setup; it is the listening equivalent of setting the table, lighting the candles, and opening the door to your guests. This is the context where true listening can happen, yet it is prologue, not the meal.
While for the more extroverted among us the greatest listening challenge may be in the outward act of hospitality - finding the time in a busy schedule, allowing quiet space, and refraining from steering the conversation with their words - for introverts like me the listening challenge is in the inward act of hospitality, making room in my inner life to allow for the needs and interests of others. The atmosphere surrounding us may be quiet, but so often the climate in our heads is thunderous. We have naturally active brains, which is why we often don’t feel the need to fill our lives with busyness. Our brains are quite busy enough, and we can provide all the stimuli that we need on our own. We’re our own favorite company. This is an asset for times of prayer and solitude, but it can be a barrier when we want to be attentive to others.
The truth is that only the listener can gauge whether he or she is truly listening, because true listening takes place on the inside. You can have all the trappings of listening – eye contact, appropriate body language, active listening sounds, occasional questions – and still not be genuinely listening. I know, because I have done it. I have been complemented for my listening by people that I knew I hadn’t listened to well, because I was preoccupied with my internal thoughts while sitting across the table from them. I was listening to the voices in my inner world, with their nagging concerns, self-doubts, and judgements, rather than offering my internal attention to the person in front of me. As Steven Covey put it, I was listening to respond, rather than listening to understand.
Therein lies the greatest listening challenge for those of us with quiet exteriors and noisy interiors: We must practice an inner hospitality, learning to clear the internal space, and turning down the volume of our inner voices, so that we can welcome the voices, thoughts, and hearts of others. That is how we become the best kind of hosts.