With Guest Contributor Felicia Muhammad
There are countless songs that tell people to listen: “Listen to Your Heart,” “Stop Look Listen,” “Children Will Listen,” and “Listen to the Music,” to name a few. Even though these songs vary in decade and genre, they all center around a key aspect of relationships: being a good listener. I’ll be the first one to admit that I need to improve on listening, just ask my husband. I usually catch 90% of what he’s saying, usually the main ideas of what is expressed, but I’d be lying if I said I was paying full attention at all times. Sometimes I have to ask him to repeat himself and, unfortunately, more often than not, he has to summarize what was just said. This is beyond frustrating for him and he expresses that when I give my full attention to him, he feels cared for and appreciated. Communication is something that is essential in the workforce, too. The art of listening is easier said than done, but there are approaches to take on this task.
One barrier to listening well is actually our brain and how fast it processes information. According to the Harvard Business Review, “The average rate of speech for most Americans is around 125 words per minute. This rate is slow going for the human brain, which is made up of more than 13 billion cells and operates in such a complicated but efficient manner that it makes the great, modern digital computers seem slow-witted. This means that, when we listen, we ask our brain to receive words at an extremely slow pace compared with its capabilities.” Basically, we have time to hear someone and still have spare time to think.
The first step is to realize whether you are hearing or listening. Hearing is essentially perceiving sounds, whether that is a crying baby or a joyful cheer at a sporting event. Listening, however, is when someone pays thoughtful attention to what is said or what is communicated. Hearing is passive and careless, whereas listening is active and careful. If you are not trying your very best to listen, you’re probably just hearing someone out. Don’t get me wrong, I often hear television shows that I put on as background noise while I do chores or I hear podcasts while I drive to see my family. If you were to ask me to summarize either, I would get the gist, but I would miss out on details that may be important. Additionally, I sometimes hear people talking during family gatherings or events with speakers so I can “space out” and take a “brain break.” To see if you’re listening or hearing, let go of your pride: ask people if they feel heard or if you have room for improvement.
The second step to listening is fully participating in the conversation. Maintaining eye contact, using open body language, asking questions, and nodding in agreement all are ways to show engagement, depending on your cultural practices. The tricky part, at least for me, is participating by not interrupting, thinking about what you may say next, judging someone on what they’re saying, or imposing opinions on the speaker. Sometimes I do those aforementioned actions because it is my way to show that I am excited. Specifically, I struggle with interrupting my friends and my brother, since we often talk about things I find interesting and we often share stories. While I hate being interrupted, I still manage to interrupt people I love dearly. Pretty much every time, they forgive me and move on, but I am sure I’ve missed out on creating meaningful memories with people I care about. The bottom line is that hearing is about you; listening is about the other person.
The third and final step to becoming a better listener is realizing why we want each other to listen. Listening is one of the highest forms of respect, in my opinion. It can make someone feel important, validated, and understood. Furthermore, not listening can make someone feel unimportant, invalidated, and misunderstood. Listening helps foster belonging, one of the keys to community and relationships. Belonging is extremely important for building relationships with loved ones and coworkers alike. Belonging leads to more trust, collaboration, improved mental health, and improved engagement, just to name a few benefits. Forbes reported that “a recent MIT study found we crave interactions in the same region of our brains where we crave food, and another study showed we experience social exclusion in the same region of our brain where we experience physical pain.” I’m confident that we all want to belong somewhere or to something. To help ourselves belong and to help others belong, we need to listen up and listen well. We were given two ears and one mouth, after all.
Felicia Muhammad (she/her/hers) is an independent consultant. She collaborates with EMBOLDEN Action LLC, supporting its clients with DEI, curriculum development, and researcher. Felicia earned her bachelor’s degree in English and Education, graduating with honors from Valparaiso University in Indiana. She then went on to serve urban schools in Cleveland and Cincinnati. Outside of secondary education, Felicia holds experience in the nonprofit sector and arbitration. Felicia’s vocational goal is to foster transformative personal growth through reflection, conversation, and action. She hopes to use her enthusiasm, dedication, and compassion to help all clients with their diversity, equity, and inclusion journey.