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The Art of Listening

Put aside your preconceptions of what you’re going to hear



Recently, my adult son told me something shocking. “Do you know why I stayed frum over the years? Because for as long as I can remember, you were always interested in what I had to say.”

Listening. Really listening to another person. Perhaps no other act of bein adam l’chaveiro is so basic, so important, and yet so overlooked. Every day, we converse with family, friends, and colleagues. We hear them, we respond to them, but most of the time we don’t really listen to them. We neglect their human need to be heard, and more important, to be deemed worth listening to.

If you’re interested in what someone has to say, it shows him he’s important in your eyes. That’s a message everyone needs. Giving that message can lift a person up; withholding it can break him.

Listening isn’t just an act of chesed. It’s also a vital tool for building and maintaining relationships. When we listen to others properly, we show them we value them. That builds the connection between us. A person feels distanced from someone who doesn’t bother to give him full attention and interest. Who wants a relationship with someone who’s uninterested in what they have to say?

It’s no wonder, then, that listening to my son was what kept him on the derech. Unless he’s Avraham Avinu, a child can’t rationally discern the truth of Torah from the false paths all around. The key to chinuch is to make the child want to follow in our footsteps. When we listen to a child and show him we’re genuinely interested in what he has to say, he sees that we hold him in esteem. That solidifies his connection to us. Not listening drives him away. Why should a child want to emulate us if we don’t consider him important? We invest so much time and money trying to teach our children the way of Torah. But do we give them a good reason to stay on it?

If we want to listen to others, the first step is to stop listening to everything else. How often do we play with our electronic devices while “listening” to our spouse or our kids? We’re good at multitasking, or so we claim. If we ask them how good we are, we’ll probably receive a much lower grade than we expect. But even if we pay enough attention to process every word they say, we’re still not listening, just hearing. Machines can hear, too. Only people can listen. No one needs to be heard. They need to be listened to.

Just hearing another person doesn’t show him he’s important to us. Listening does. This is especially crucial in child rearing. When our eyes and hands are glued to our phone while we’re talking to our children, it shows them they’re second — if not third or fourth — in importance to us. If we do that on a regular basis, our children will be irrevocably convinced that a WhatsApp message is more important to us than they are. We can tell them we value them till we’re blue in the face, we can buy them the most expensive gifts, but we’ll never persuade them otherwise.

Putting aside our devices of distraction is the easy part. Once we’re ready to start listening, we often encounter a problem. We want to show the other person that we’re interested in what they’re saying, but the truth is that we’re not. Sometimes they tell us some fascinating story, but most of the time, it’s pretty boring. Most of us aren’t good actors; the other person will sense that we’re faking it. So how can we show interest in something uninteresting?

What we need to do is open ourselves up to hear something interesting. Yes, it’s up to us. We’re the ones who determine whether we’re going to hear something interesting or dull. Sometimes, we need to step into the other person’s shoes and find interest in subjects that are interesting to them. But most of the time, we don’t have to be so noble. We just need to make the conscious decision to listen with the right mindset: “What I’m about to hear is going to be interesting!”

We hear what we expect to hear. We have strong preconceptions about those around us. The longer we know a person, the more assumptions we make, and those predictions become self-fulfilling. Before he even opens his mouth, we think we know more or less what he’s going to say, or at least how interesting it will be. When our spouse or child starts telling us about their day, we begin to yawn right away. When a less-than-brilliant chavrusa starts to tell us his insights about the sugya, it’s clear as day to us that we won’t gain anything from his words. That’s why we can’t listen properly. It’s all so predictably boring.

So many problems in shalom bayis arise because one is bored by his spouse. We think we know them perfectly. When was the last time you were surprised by your spouse? If it’s been a long time, chances are it’s because we stopped trying to learn about them. People are always developing, and different facets of their personalities reveal themselves over time. Listening with the right mindset can open us up to discover positive traits and personality depth we would have otherwise missed. How refreshing that would be to a marriage, and to other relationships as well.

If we listen to others, we can learn a lot about them, and we can also learn from them. The Mishnah teaches: “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.” Hashem puts us around others so we can learn from them. What blocks us from doing so is our bundle of preconceptions. We don’t think we’ll learn anything, so we don’t.

We have to adopt the mindset that we have something to learn from this person. The Minchas Chinuch and the Divrei Chaim were chavrusas. One day they heard from Rav Naftali of Ropschitz: “A person can only learn from someone if he makes him his rebbe.” So they tried to learn together, each with the mindset that his chavrusa was his teacher. In a short time, they gained from each other much more than they ever had before.

If we realize that we have the opportunity to learn from another person, or about him, we’ll be interested and attentive. Once we’ve done that, it’s easy to show interest to the other person. Asking thoughtful questions shows him we’re engaged and find his insights valuable. Especially with our children, we want to make efforts to boost their self-worth by showing them how seriously we take their input. Alluding to things they once said, or even quoting them to their siblings, is a powerful way to do that.

Careful listening can make you a baal chesed. It can strengthen your relationships and boost your marital harmony. It can solidify your connection to your children and maximize your influence on them. Try it out. Make a conscious effort to really listen to your spouse and children for a specific time during the day. Do your best to put aside your preconceptions of what you’re going to hear, and let yourself be surprised. It’s risk-free, and the rewards are tremendous.

Eventually, we’ll get used to it, and become true listeners. Nothing could be a better investment, for ourselves and our families.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 866.

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