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The fine art of listening
There's a reason we have two ears and only one mouth. But is listening getting the attention it deserves? - photo by Tiffany Gee Lewis
Our family went on one of those idyllic autumn bike rides on a trail near our home last week. The leaves were gold and red, falling in gentle drifts from the trees above.

The bigger boys had gone ahead, so I and the 6-year-old tooled along behind, admiring the trees and stopping to shed layers of clothing as the air grew warmer.

At one point, my son looked at the falling leaves and exclaimed, Look at all those leaves just scuttering to the ground!

Almost in the same breath, he glanced at me and said, Wow, that was a big word I just used. What does it mean?

I smiled and told him that scutter is similar to scurry. Leaves might scutter along the ground, or a rabbit or a mouse might scutter under a bench.

We continued along with our ride and I laughed to myself, trying to figure where my son had heard the word scutter perhaps from a book-on-tape or an older brother. Somehow the word weaved its way into his brain and he decided to try it on for size, like a pair of oversized pants that didnt fit just yet.

I was reminded, once again, that children are exceptional listeners. They pull in words, ideas and speech patterns, oftentimes without our awareness, their brains primed for listening.

Yet sometime between childhood and adulthood, we teach them to stop listening.

We teach them to stop listening when they come to us with a question and we brush them off or provide a flippant answer. Parents are masters at inserting the occasional Oh really? without really internalizing what a child is saying.

We teach children to stop listening when they come to us with a concern and we offer an immediate solution, when all they really want is to be heard.

We are living in the supposed communication age. We are in near-constant contact with others through texting, email, Skype chats and face-to-face interactions. Yet Ive been struck lately by how little we actually listen to one another. We have unlearned the art of listening.

I have two sons who play Suzuki violin. We spend a lot of time practicing posture and bow holds, but we spend most of our time listening to the recorded songs on CD.

Listening to the violin pieces is one of the fundamental tenets of the Suzuki method. In fact, Shinichi Suzuki, famed for starting pint-sized violinists as young as 2, said the listening is far more important than the actual playing. He said it isnt enough for children to know their songs. They must listen until they cant forget.

I believe Suzuki was onto something, and not just when it comes to the violin, but when it comes to verbal communication.

If we were to apply the Suzuki method to all aspects of our lives, then we would listen far more than we talk. We would listen not just to know, but to never forget.

William Ury, author of the best-selling book Getting to Yes and co-founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, gave a TED talk earlier this year in which he talked about this very thing, the power of listening.

Listening, he said, is the missing half of communication. Listening may be the cheapest negotiation tool we have it costs us nothing yet it can be one of the most effective.

Ury uses the word negotiation in the broadest sense of the term. We use negotiation in business and school environments, but also in our personal lives, as parents, sons and daughters and friends. We negotiate our way through everything from personal finances with our spouses to getting our kids to eat their carrots at mealtime.

Listening, according to Ury, helps us do three things. It helps us understand the other persons perspective. It provides connection to another human being, which in turn builds trust. Finally, when we truly listen, it makes it more likely that the other person will listen to us.

The reason listening is so important to the Suzuki method is because a violinist is in charge of his own tuning. The slightest movement of a finger up or down the string will render the note flat or sharp. Listening develops an ear for good tone and good tuning, as well as dynamics and musicality. Suzuki calls this sensitivity.

Likewise, the more we listen to others and genuinely tune in to what they are saying, the better we become at developing a sensitivity to others.

This happens by tuning into the wavelength of the other person, according to Ury. We take the focus off ourselves what were thinking and how were going to respond. We focus instead on the wants and needs of the other person. A key to this is listening to what is behind the words, the underlying emotions and needs.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but as Ury points out, its harder than it looks. If it were easy, there wouldnt be as much family dysfunction, divorce, political strife and warfare.

Real listening begins by clearing our minds and first learning to listen to ourselves. Some call this mindfulness or meditation, pondering or prayer. Whatever the method, our ability to look inward helps increase our ability to turn outward. As I wrote in my previous column, that inward thought is crucial to building empathy, another component of good listening.

Just as my son pulled out the word scutter without quite knowing what it meant, listening takes practice. It is a skill honed over a lifetime, yet the benefits are immeasurable, as we finely tune our ear to those we love.