I was part of a group the other day and one woman was telling a sensitive story. Another woman in the group kept interrupting her. She was encouraging her, affirming what the first woman was trying to say, but she was interrupting nonetheless.
I marveled, not for the first time, at how much we interrupt one another. We talk over one another, we agree and encourage, we argue, we finish someone else’s sentences, and we compete with one another for the next moment.
Ultimately, a lot of us don’t listen very well.
There are, of course, all kinds of conversations. There is rollicking and rowdy banter that doesn’t appear to require our deepest attention. There’s the “snap, snap, zing” kind of ricochet that is a blast to participate in and doesn’t bode well for deep thoughts. There’s thoughtful and intricate conversation that works to figure something out. There’s heartfelt and sincere conversation that really does ask us to keep our mouths quiet. And there are group conversations.
I spend a lot of my life in group conversations. Groups of strangers, groups where people barely know one another, groups where people have been together for years. Groups can give us some of our best moments in life. A group that works well together can focus on an idea or support someone or come up with new ways of seeing that surpass an individual’s capability.
And sometimes, people in groups talk over one another. This isn’t always a bad thing. People are used to many layers of conversations and half-listening, and throwing ideas around. Our brains can manage a lot of information and stimuli.
But what about when someone has a delicate thing to discuss, or an idea that needs careful consideration? What about when someone is going to tell you something that really matters?
When someone has something important to say, a group that doesn’t know how to be quiet and listen can miss out. There are a few key ways this happens.
· The side conversation: Two people a sparked by the main conversation to some other fascinating topic. Pretty quickly, you’ve got a group divided.
· Talking over. This happens all the time. One person isn’t finished with a sentence, and another person is jumping in with her thought.
· Someone listening who can’t resist telling a similar story about himself. The person speaking has a story or a situation he’s describing and there is often someone who had the same thing, except bigger, faster, and more important. The new story could be relevant and interesting. But more likely, this is a time to learn how to zip it.
· The encourager. Often, there is someone who wants the speaker to feel comfortable and, to that end, makes lengthy comments and encouraging remarks. This can turn into a kind of narration of a person’s story, rather than a listening to a person’s story.
I’ve done each of these things. And if you spend any amount of time in groups, I’m guessing you have your own version of not listening, too. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better since I’ve made a conscious effort to speak up less and shut up more. I tend to hear more that way. But I know how challenging it is, even for respectful and well-intentioned people, to listen well in a group. There is just so much to think, so much to say, so much to consider in a dynamic group full of spirited people, talking about fascinating things: Oh! How not to jump in?
This doesn’t describe all the groups we’re in. I happen to be very lucky on this score. Nevertheless, many of us spend a lot of time in groups. If the group isn’t fascinating, it may be even more tempting to cut people off. If we’re running the group, it’s always helpful to establish guidelines for interacting from the beginning. Or in the middle, if required. It’s never a bad time to request an agreement about group dynamics.
There are a couple helpful ideas and traditions to help groups work better together. Many groups use an old Native American “talking stick.” Whoever has the stick is talking, and everyone else is listening. This is a more formal gesture, obviously, but the stick (or the pen, coffee cup, whatever) makes it clear who ought to be talking. Anyone who wants to talk needs to wait for the stick. This is a good one for times when emotions are running high.
Another thing to do is to make an agreement that there will be a one-second pause between speakers. That pause allows people to absorb what one person has said, and to clear the way for a new speaker. Peter Palmer talks about this and much more about group dynamics in his very excellent book, A Hidden Wholeness: A Journey Toward an Undivided Life.
Mostly, what I’ve noticed is that groups tend to be either self-regulating over time, or they fall apart. If you are in a situation where the group won’t be allowed to fall apart (like a work group), then it’s even more critical that people feel like the group works.
Listening is an art and skill that requires patience, respect, and humility. Like all skills, it also requires practice. The rewards of listening—better connection—are well worth the work.