A major barrier to listening to another person, without interruption, is the notion that silence may condone agreement. If someone is talking and we nod or indicate that we’re listening by saying “uh-huh,” a common fear is that the speaker may confuse our failure to object with our agreement. The speaker may even suddenly switch topics under the delusion that you share his view, which lays the setting for a future irresolvable argument. The speaker clearly “heard” your agreement because he mistakenly interpreted your “uh-huh,” and “I see” response with your unequivocal endorsement of what he said. You, on the other hand, were only indicating that you heard the message. You were particularly careful not to commit to anything. The future setting is ripe for you to be accused of either changing your mind, or worse, lying!

An additional fear in silent listening is running into an abrupt end to a conversation. What would happen if we were listening to something we strongly disagreed with? What would happen if we were using the encouraging signs (“I see,” “Go on”) for the speaker to complete his thoughts, but the conversation was suddenly disconnected or interrupted and we never got a chance to state our view?

These fears are so valid because they’re not at all uncommon.

I recently re-watched the timeless classic 12 Angry Men. This movie is a masterpiece on so many levels, but one thing it so brilliantly demonstrates are the enormous communication challenges humans face.

12 Angry Men is about twelve jurors who must return a verdict in a slum kid’s murder trial. In the early stages of the movie eleven jurors are certain of the defendant’s guilt. One isn’t so sure and refuses to throw in a vote of guilty until he’s convinced otherwise. As the drama unfolds we get a wonderful view of the twelve jurors, their personalities and peculiarities. Each juror heard the same trial, but each has heard a unique trial through the blurred vision of his own lens. Each juror has “innocently” arrived at his verdict through his personal filters, prejudices, and interpretations.

In one particularly poignant scene, juror number-ten exposes his extreme bigotry through a hate filled diatribe that’s reminiscent of a Hitler tantrum. During his vengeful rant, two of the jurors, unable to listen to his opinion, leave the room. The other jurors sit in twisted agony or stony silence as they fight their natural inclination to stifle this man’s prejudicial-rage with whatever means necessary.

As I watched that scene I reflected on the challenges each of the jurors were wrestling with. In the spirit of justice each man has the right to express his opinion, each has the right to be heard, but at what point does that right cross the line? I don’t want to slip into a deeper discussion, but I think this point is a vivid example of the same challenges any skilled listener faces. It’s not easy to listen to something we may not agree with, perhaps even violently disagree with, while battling the justifiable fear that even our temporary silence can be confused with acceptance of the speaker’s view. In the case of listening to juror number ten, the other jury members “listened” and reacted in various ways. Although each juror managed to convey his vehement disagreement with what was being said, not all listened and certainly not at the same level.

Although the above example is extreme, it typifies the challenge a listener will confront when truly listening to another person. If the speaker says something that we find disagreeable, repugnant, or just plain ignorant, we naturally feel that our silence is either compliant or spineless in its lack of confrontation. Silence in the face of hearing something unpalatable is a very real challenge that any good listener must be prepared to confront. A good listener has to anticipate such a scenario in advance and know that he must not only hold his tongue, but he must make every attempt to see the world through the speaker’s eyes. To become a skilled listener, this has to be a clearly understood and defined goal. Listening decorum does NOT mean we agree with one iota of the speaker’s message, but it DOES mean we have risen to the lofty heights of practicing the fundamental human right of freedom of expression.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
~ Evelyn Beatrice Hall ~

Anyone, even a poor listener can sit silently and listen to a speaker who says agreeable things. But it’s when a speaker says something we cannot agree with that the very foundation of effective listening comes into play. It is precisely at that point that we must ask ourselves; “Can I listen empathically? Can I still try to see the situation through the speaker’s eyes? Can I listen for the duration of the speech without judging or criticizing?”

If our desire to listen to another is only exercised when hearing an agreeable message, then we will never achieve any degree of listening skill. In fact, unless we’re listening to “a string of facts” we might be very hard pressed to ever listen to another person without some disagreement. It is precisely when we hear an opposing view that our ability to truly listen is called upon.

Listening empathically to someone say something we disagree with, to suspend our criticism and judgment, even temporarily, is the hallmark of maturity, wisdom and genuine listening skill.

Author's Bio: 

Richard Fast, the author and creator of more than 30 toys, games, puzzles and books, has devoted the past twenty years into the research and development of his 29 DAYS template.

He, like the rest of us, had always been told that if you want to change your life just change your thoughts. But how can we change the way we think?

Richard discovered that we can change our fundamental thoughts into desirable new habits by following the same cognitive procedures that we used to create our existing habits.

Richard’s 29 DAYS template for change uses proven, scientific techniques, technology and online coaching, to guide you through a step-by-step process toward changing your thoughts and acquiring desirable new habits ... permanently.