The Lost Art of Listening, Second Edition: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships, by Michael P. Nichols, PhD

This book brought up a surprising number of emotions during the reading that have been lingering with me ever since. The book covers a full spectrum of interpersonal communications as a friend, spouse, and parent. Nichols not only offers suggestions for improving communications but also makes his own confessions of his own communications failures in those areas and as a professional listener in his counseling practice.

As an introvert I was surprised at the insight that this was often a defense mechanism for people who weren’t listened to as children. There’s a tendency, he says, to give up on being listened to creating a shell of isolation, busy-ness, and reserve as a way to avoid opening up old wounds. I could see that. I came from a family where people were naturally quiet with each other. Disturbing that quiet could be cause for reproach. This is probably what lead me to two marriages with partners who were bubbly, vivacious, and terrible listeners. My late wife was well-meaning but even our daughters avoided opening up to her because of her odd listening style. You would start with a story about something that happened during the day and she’d interrupt with “What were they wearing?” “What was the restaurant like?” “What did people order?” She interrupted flow, shushed people when she was busy, and threw in her own opinions about how the speaker should have acted with advice for future encounters.

We run across people like this every day, along with people who make themselves difficult to listen to by catching any open ear and telling in-depth stories that have no point. Trapped by some people like this I’ve actually stood at an office door, feet facing outward, looking over my shoulder, with the person continuing on as if I were hanging on every word.

Most of us face challenging people who ignore us or have no sense of boundaries. And few of us are good listeners ourselves. It’s more common to react than respond thoughtfully. Often we want to share similar experiences or offer advice, or something in the way others communicate will set off emotional reactions that have more to do with our life experiences than any actual content in the conversation.

Nichols covers multiple topics and situations dealing with coworkers, spouses, and others. Each chapter offers exercises along with tips on planning alternate ways of approaching people with whom we have problems communicating.

Along with opening up some memories that weren’t always pleasant I found myself cringing when I heard descriptions of ways I am a less than perfect listener. But the tips are useful and realistic. The most general is to simply be interested in what people say. So when a person says: “I had a terrible night’s sleep” you can avoid typical responses like “I did, too” or “Have you tried melatonin?” or “You should stop watching TV so late” and respond with things like: “That’s a shame. Why do you think that’s happening?” The ideas go far beyond what is generally described as “active listening” which, when poorly applied, can be more irritating than being ignored.

I also appreciated that Nichols took aim at some gender biases that have increased with the “men are from mars” pop-psy that developed over the past few decades. About the only gender difference he mentions himself is that women tend to talk to friends face-to-face while men tend to talk during shared activities. Dealing with others as individuals rather than gender types can eliminate tons of problems at the very start.

There are endless places where we can be better listeners. Nichols says this applies as much to newborns as it does to the elderly. We have an ongoing desire to be recognized as having lives worth understanding and emotions worth respecting.

He also give advice for dealing with people who tend to explode with anger, or who latch onto any sympathetic listener, or who have trouble opening up. He provides some understanding for their motivations along with concrete suggestions.

I don’t know whether this book will convert me from introvert to extrovert or perfect my listening skills but it definitely took me down some unexpected paths even as someone who considered myself an above average listener already.