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Are You Listening?

I recently had the pleasure of enjoying an afternoon at the  Musical Instrument Museum  in Phoenix.  If you haven’t made it to the museum yet, I encourage you to do so.  Not only can it be a great way to get out of the summer heat, but you can hear some fantastic music and get an impressive cross-cultural experience.  There’s also a large “hands on” department where kids and adults alike can try for themselves a myriad of unique instruments from around the world.  There’s no other museum in the world with the approach the MIM is taking, and we’re lucky enough to have it in our own backyard.

During my recent visit, one particularly striking feature about the MIM is how quiet the whole place is.  You would expect a musical museum boasting over 10,000 instruments to be quite the cacophony but, in fact, it’s easy to confuse the building as a library.  They achieve this feat through personal headphones that guests wear and, as you approach each exhibit, a sample of music from the displayed instrument is played wirelessly to your own headphones.  Walk away, the music fades out and you’re once again brought back to the silence of the museum.

The whole experience got me thinking about the concept of listening.  I have the honor everyday of listening to my patient’s stories, and I take for granted the listening requirement that my profession entails.  The concept of “conscious listening creates understanding” consistently comes up in the research done in the field of effective listening.  It made me wonder if there are ways to improve our abilities to consciously listen, especially in an ever-increasingly noisy world around us.

Most data suggest that we spend 60% of our time listening but only 25% of that information is retained.  We are simply exposed to so much information that it’s impossible to remember it all and, unfortunately, our listening abilities have been deteriorating over time.  More specifically, with the capacity to record our thoughts in the form of written words or recorded sounds, we can “listen or read it later,” thereby removing the need to pay attention now.  We’re also more impatient, looking for ever-shorter and shorter sound-bytes to summarize ideas.

Yet, there is hope!  I challenge you to take the following three simple steps for the next 30 days and you’ll be on your way to becoming a more conscious listener.  First, take three minutes a day in complete silence (or as close as you can get it).  There are excellent studies demonstrating that as little as three minutes in complete silence actually “recalibrates” your ears and their ability to filter out the noise.  It’s a little like hitting the “reset” button when there is so much stimulation that the brain is overwhelmed.

Next, most of our environments are a complex mixture of sounds, even the seemingly most peaceful ones.  Take for example a city park: children playing, people talking, birds chirping, nearby traffic, etc.  Just try and focus on “one channel” of sound.  In our park example, focus on just the birds.  How many are there?  Where are they?  Try to eliminate all the other background noise.  You’ll be amazed at the subtleties you’ll hear and your ability to truly focus on what’s important in other situations.

Finally, when listening to others, the acronym RASA (Receive, Appreciate, Summarize and Ask) can be a highly effective tool.  In other words, “receive” the words being said to you.  Then “appreciate” what’s being said by saying things like, “uh-huh” and “I see.”  By “summarizing” what was just said, not only do you get a better understanding of what was actually said, the person you’re talking to will truly recognize your ability to listen.  Along that same line, “asking” further questions can solidify your listening experience and create true conscious listening.

The ability to hear is one of our greatest senses but truly listening takes practice.  Use the next 30 days to improve your listening skills and not only will you see improvements in your relationships, but also in your outlook of the world around you.


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