The other evening, as Courtney and I lay in bed, we settled into our daily argument –I'm rather difficult to live with. She was halfway through a thought when she stopped and said, "stop thinking about how your going to respond and just listen." Guilty.
I've picked up the hobby of listening in the last couple years. I say hobby because it's the sort of thing I only do when I feel especially ambitious. Like playing piano, or knitting. I am a terrible listener, I've found, for several reasons.
First. As I take in new information I'm setting it on balance scales, measuring it, fitting it in to previous conversations, analyzing it's implications. When Courtney asks me to get some cheese at the store I start working through our budget, mentally checking my schedule, calculating whether or not I would still have time to do this or that in between getting said item and my next guitar lesson. This, combined with the fact that I am terrible at multi-tasking, leaves me walking away only to forget entirely what the person just told me a few moments later. "Honey, what was it you needed me to get at Kroger?" I can make my wife roll her eyes on command. I consider this a superpower.
Second. As a normally gentle and tenderhearted girl once yelled at me on a Great Lakes beach, "WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO TRY TO BE RIGHT?!" (Superpower number 2: the ability to turn the sweetest, gentlest people on earth into rage machines.) When someone speaks to me, my default is to process their ideas into 'for' or 'against' categories, hacking what they are trying to say into pieces. I do it so that later I can win.
Just to be clear; this is not listening. I partially blame talking heads. I grew up thriving on debate, an arena that emphasizes the search for weaknesses to counterpoint. You'd be an idiot to stop mid argument to say, "I see what your saying. Man that really hits close to home for you doesn't it?" Unless of course your using it to gain audience sympathy in order to make your eventual counterpoint more legitimate.
Third. When I listen, I often hunt for signs that that they understand me. If Courtney and I are having a tiff, I'll listen to how she responds to what I've said, to make sure that she's got it right, interrupting (this too is not listening) her heart being poured out in order to correct her (most definitely not listening).
There are more, but I won't bore you with the details of my deficiency.
I am convinced that humans are not listeners by default. The history of mankind (read the book of Genesis) is personal intrest and consequential separation and we are still very much ourselves, but with iPods (which also make listening more difficult). Those I've met who listen well have probably worked at it, and still do.
Listening is a conscious effort. If you don't give it much thought, you probably aren't doing it well.