“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
I ran across this quote in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People a while back and it’s stuck with me. Not to say I’m good at applying it. Not really. Keep quiet and let another person talk? Check. Actually pay attention and focus on listening rather than replying? Not so easy.
Still, it’s one of my goals to train myself to be a good listener. People are interesting, and I like learning not just about them, but specifically about what makes them tick.
Admittedly, for a lot of humanity, their driver is something boring: money, pleasure-seeking, etc. But when I meet a genuine person—somebody who’s passionate about their job, hobby, etc.—it’s a joy.
First, though, it’s a matter of getting someone to open up. So many conversations I have with people are shallow. We discuss the weather, or we rehash the same topic over and over. Part of it, I think, is our general tendency to take our fellow human beings for granted. It’s so easy after knowing someone for years on end to think that you’ve got them figured out, that you know everything of importance that there is to know about them.
Or there’s the matter of fear and distrust. People of sense aren’t inclined to go wandering about laying bare their soul. But if we always stay stuck on surface topics, how are we to form genuine connections with others?
I’ve been fortunate in that I have a number of people I correspond with through letter-writing. It’s amazing reading others’ letters and seeing them open up through their writing. Still, I hunger for deep, meaningful conversations. They’re not easy to come by, but I’ve discovered some methods for pushing past the shallow stuff out into the deep end.
One is to talk about yourself. No, not about your latest vacation or weekend plans. I mean the meaty stuff.
Personally, I talk about my writing and tell people what got me into it, why I enjoy it, etc.. From there things tend to naturally take off. The key to success lies in sharing your real self. In other words, be vulnerable. Tell people about your hopes, fears, dreams, and weaknesses. It’s risky, but it’s amazing the dividends that upfront investment can pay.
Another thing – Have questions prepped beforehand to ask the other person. Again, keep it real and thoughtful. Examples:
Why do you work ___ job? If you’re not happy with it, what would you like to be doing? Why?
Where would you like to be a year (or 10 years) from now? What would you like to see changed about yourself and your situation?
What’s a quality you lack that a family member/friend of yours has that you wish you had? (Note – I’ve used this at a mutual gathering between my own family and my sister-in-law’s and it sparked an awesome discussion. One especial perk was that people got to hear about traits that their siblings admire in them. My eldest brother, for example, wished he could let things roll off his back like our youngest brother.)
Once you get your companion talking, drill deeper. Say they like swimming. Ask them why. Quiz them about their favorite stroke, what life lessons they’ve learned from swimming and what memories they cherish. Who knows what fascinating things you’ll learn?
A third point – Give the other person time to respond. My introvert friends, especially, need time to formulate a thoughtful response. Or, sometimes, we have a natural break in our conversation and then there’s a long silence – so long that I start to get uncomfortable and feel an urge to break the silence But I’m learning to restrain myself and “wait it out”. This takes patience, but I’m often rewarded with deeper answers from my friends.
A final thought – Express a sincere interest in people. The other night, I asked a priest some questions in Confession. He offered me some advice and then asked if he’d answered my question. Instinctively I responded: “I think so.” Then Father asked: “Are you sure? We can go deeper.”
At that, I paused and thought. And then I realized, yes, I did have something more to say.
I am so grateful to the priest for his thoughtfulness. I felt he was really paying attention to me and it made me feel so good.
That’s the beauty of deep conversation, isn’t it? Someone can satisfy you with intellectual talk, but that doesn’t mean their conversation nourishes you. Rather, we need to be present mentally, listening to someone with the desire to understand them.
Only then can we come to truly know them.