Listen, Really Listen

I was in a client meeting not too long ago, and I asked “Brent” and “Linda” sitting across the conference room table from me a typical opening question, “What do we want to accomplish today with your estate plan?” 

Brent launched into a soliloquy of how entitled his adult children were. While he wanted to provide for Linda and make sure that their accumulated wealth would be used for her retirement and care after his passing, he preferred to leave a considerable amount to charity, leaving little for his children and grandchildren.  

Brent described observing his children’s spendthrift tendencies, such as the large homes they lived in, expensive vacations they enjoyed, and luxury cars they leased. He even lamented that his son-in-law gave continuous financial assistance to his parents. Brent worried that Linda, following his death would change the estate plan and leave more, if not everything to the children. “My hard-earned savings might end up with my son-in-law’s parents!” he cried.  

Linda sat patiently through her husband’s discourse. When he finished, she looked at him and softly said, “Have you not listened to what your children have been through over the past several years?” She went on to describe how her children and their spouses were hard-workers, successful in their careers yet good parents.  

The grandchildren excelled in school, except one was autistic, needing special education and services. The immigrant parents of their son-in-law worked difficult jobs for many years so that he could attend college. He sent dollars home because his parents were no longer capable of the back-breaking labor that earned their living. They had sacrificed much so he could enjoy the life he and their daughter made for themselves and for their family.  

“If you listened, really listened to the conversations we’ve had when we’re together,” Linda gently chided Brent, “you’d look past what your eyes see. I’m proud of what our children have become.”   

Our eyes tend to deceive us. Consider that in the English language virtually all our words for understanding or intellect are governed by the metaphor of sight. We speak of hindsight, insight, foresight, vision, and imagination. We speak of people being perceptive, of making an observation, of adopting a perspective. We say, “It appears that.” When we understand something we say, “I see.” These are all legacies of the philosophers of ancient Greece, the supreme example of a visual culture.  

But our eyes only see part of the truth. What we see, as I pointed out in the story of my clients’ conversations, is not always what is. To get the complete picture, we must listen. While the other person is talking, do you not start thinking about what your response will be? Should you instead focus on what is being said, and how it is being said. Do you feel the emotions behind the words?  

Listening is a profoundly personal act. It is comfortable not to have to listen, not to be challenged, not to be moved outside of our comfort zone. Today, because of Google filters, Facebook feeds, and the precise targeting of individuals made possible by social media, it’s easy to live in an echo chamber in which we only read and see those who agree with us. We no longer need to listen to one another because those views don’t matter.  

When you say that someone “hears” you, you are giving them the highest compliment. Everyone wants to be heard. Much conflict can be resolved if we simply spend the time to listen to one another. When someone feels heard, then he is more likely to reciprocate. This is a win-win proposition.  

Listening is a life-changing idea. It is the greatest gift that we can give another human being. I know that I can improve my listening skills, and in 2024 resolve to do so.  

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