Listen up at a new level

During a casual conversation with a close friend, I remarked, "I think I'll write a column about listening." The next day he brought me a book, "The Dynamics of Human Communication," which focused on improving communication skills and listening behaviors. I recognized it as a well-regarded text on communications theory — and my friend was the author!

How can you know someone for more than a decade and not realize they wrote a classic communication reference republished six times over a 20-year period? I guess I wasn't listening very well when he talked about his career before retirement. That's something I'd like to change.

Instead of always focusing on what I'm going to say in response to someone's stories, I want to more actively listen to what they're saying — really hear them. I want to listen at a new level.

I intend to explore the phrase that got me thinking about all this in the first place: "If you're inclined to 'nag,' it usually means you don't feel like you're being listened to."

If you've ever held a conversation with someone who's a really excellent listener, the kind of person who focuses every one of their senses on absorbing what you're saying — who appears to integrate it fully and affirms you as an interesting speaker — well, if you have that in your life, you are very fortunate.

Let's take a little journey. I've asked Dr. Gail Myers (my author-friend) to join me in next week's column to offer his expertise about improving our listening skills — and maybe, in the process, our lives in general.

I now know (after reading his book) there's a set of transactional principles at play anytime we carry on a conversation.

The first principle, "you cannot NOT communicate." I was in a local retail establishment when one clerk said a friendly "good morning" to another — and he got a scowl in response. She spoke not a word, but the whole atmosphere changed. I left without making my intended purchase.

Second principle: "Communication is predictable." If I come home from work and say to my hubby, "You didn't put the garbage out today," I know how he'll respond — defensively. If I say, "I was hoping the garbage would get out today," our evening will be much more pleasant.

Myers calls the third principle, "Chicken and Egg." You tell your friend you were late because your friend is never punctual; and your friend claims she's never on time because you are always late. We are simultaneously "receivers" and "senders," and it makes relationships trickier.

There's more — but I'm saving it for next week. In the interim, practice listening. You do it anyway — just try to do it a little better. Think of it as a gift for a friend.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.

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