“His thoughts were slow,
His words were few, and never formed to glisten.
But he was a joy to all his friends –
You should have heard him listen”. (Anon)
Listening is a rare phenomenon amongst human beings. It seems that the tongue is a very powerful and dominant muscle, at times completely overshadowing the ears and their ability to listen. The tongue that is not well controlled overruns itself, causing temporary deafness until it is reigned in. A loose tongue causes frustration, even hurt, in others and can damage the reputation of the speaker. A wayward tongue deadens the ears and demonstrates a lack of care and empathy.
“Lending an ear” or expressing empathy involves understanding the heart, the mind, and the spirit of another – showing appreciation and reverence for who they are. Dr Stephen R Covey notes: “To gain empathy for another, we must listen to them with our eyes and hearts, as well as our ears. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, but rather listen with the intent to reply. They are busy filtering everything through their own perspectives rather than trying to understand another’s frame of reference”.
Empathic listening demonstrates care – it is an attitude that comes from the heart. It establishes respect and offers dignity. All the best listening ‘techniques’ in the world pale in comparison to the impact of genuine care. To control your tongue and express empathy, your integrity and personal security need to be in place, because empathy involves being vulnerable and at risk. This is particularly important for those in leadership positions because, as Ken Blanchard, in “The Heart of a Leader”, notes: “Real communication happens when we feel safe”.
When we create spaces of safety, it gives others the opportunity to share their hearts and it grants the leader the opportunity to understand. Sometimes the most challenging demand of empathy is holding your tongue when tempted to answer, to give counsel, or to share your own stories. Alfred Brendel, however, cleverly quips: “The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” As we guard our tongues and demonstrate care, we will even be able to hear what is being said in the silence. Peter F Drucker takes ‘listening deeply’ further and notes: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said”.
The overuse of our respective tongues could cause temporary deafness – the inability to understand the hearts, minds, and spirits of others. William Shakespeare offers some wisdom: “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice”.