Learning to Listen: It’s Harder Than You Think

As a physician, I think I am a good listener. More than 75 percent of practicing medicine is listening closely to what the patient says and then asking the right questions. I think the same is true about being a friend or a colleague. Advancing an idea, building a team, or developing a plan all come from listening to everyone involved. This is intensely true with regard to families and those we love the most—which is when we tend to do it the least.

I’m especially reminded of this by a story my father tells.

learning to listen

In the spring of 1952, during the Korean War, my father was flying a small fighter plane off an aircraft carrier in the China Sea. Officially, US forces were not supposed to be flying over North Korea, but he was on an assigned mission with a target to bomb. He flew very low, and anti-aircraft fire exploded around him. His plane was shot in hundreds of places, leaving him no option but to bail out.

When his parachute landed, my father knew he was in danger. As a 22-year-old Navy officer, he had no intention of being captured. He was armed to the teeth, and when a truck rumbled toward him he was prepared to fight. My father readied his handgun. Over the hill came a US Marine. With his adrenaline on overload, my father’s aim did not waver. Calmly, the Marine said, “Give me your gun.”

My father turned it over.

Back on the aircraft carrier, officers debriefed him about the incident and his terrifying near-death experience. After a few brief questions, he was asked, “What happened to your gun?”

“I don’t remember,” he replied.

Over the next few weeks, he had several more interviews. He remembers, “I was asked over and over again about what happened to my gun, but no one ever asked what happened to me.”

After 60 years, my father’s favorite song is still the Marine Corps hymn because a Marine rescued him, but he has never forgotten that no one asked about him on that day.

The truth is, we rarely ask about the other person and how he or she really feels. We are quick to tell our story. We seem to always believe that our point of view is more interesting, more important, and more meaningful than the person we are talking to. I find myself doing it. What is worse, I do it without realizing it. I hate it when I catch myself interrupting someone telling a story. It means I am not fully listening to what the person is saying.

It is not possible to get close to someone without truly listening to what he or she has to say and then, at least, give a non-judgmental assessment of the merits of the person’s point of view. Failing to do this is what causes almost all of the conflicts we face in life. From the playground to the boardroom, from the bedroom to the battlefield, we don’t engage in listening to the other person’s point of view.

Abraham Lincoln reportedly once said, “I don’t like that person, I need to get to know him better.” It is also true that I may not know a person well enough to like him because I have not really heard what he is saying.

My father rarely, in my presence, has told the story of being shot down. Whenever he has, I don’t care what happened to the gun.

I care what happened to him.

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