Be the Listener

It’s a Saturday morning, mid-September in Arkansas. My senses light up as I step out on my back patio and walk to the wooden chair that sits near our wilderness space behind our house. I slide into the comfortable chair and feel the hard, rough surface of the fire pit against my bare feet as I prop them on it. A cool breeze hits my skin just right, as I slowly sip hot black tea in my favorite double-wall glass mug. The water falls off the pool slide and I realize my “spidey” senses are tingling in a good way. 

Experiences like this prove that some events stimulate all of your senses, sometimes all at once.

Humans have 5 basic senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. The sensing organs associated with each send information to the brain to help us understand and perceive the world around us. A song that gives you goose bumps…the smell of a baby’s head and the spine of an old library book…the taste and smell of barbeque smoking on a grill…the way your skin feels when slipping into a hot bath…the way the smell of warm chocolate chip cookies baking fills your heart…. This heightened sensory engagement really gets the blood pumping to your brain and will help you think differently about whatever is on your mind. 

Thinking about the significance of our senses and how they work together has me considering those who have lost their taste and smell due to COVID-19. How challenging that must be! While the loss of taste and smell isn’t as dramatic as shortness of breath or debilitating fatigue, the impact can be quite upsetting. 

I do have a favorite sense, though, that I hope I never lose. As an insurance agent, I am sure it comes as no surprise how important I feel listening is. In my business, I do it all day long. Effective, active listening skills can improve all of the relationships of our lives. 

It’s great news when customers want to meet to talk about their insurance needs. As agents we are taught to put our agenda aside and strive fully to comprehend everything our customers are saying. The best in our business are the best not because of their knowledge of insurance, but because of their ability to build lasting relationships. Your insurance agent should show a genuine interest in you. At my offices, we challenge ourselves to embrace listening as a key part of how we operate and ensure that it runs deep into what we do and how we do it.

Imagine if I called you on the phone and tried to sell you insurance and I didn’t really value you. If you were just another line on a spreadsheet that I had to call, you would see and feel that, even if I tried to fake it. You wouldn’t—and you shouldn’t—buy anything from me. 

Let’s talk about parenting. It’s difficult enough to be a parent during the best of times—and these are definitely not the best of times. As parents, being able to listen to our children in a way that makes them feel valued is maybe the single most powerful thing we can do to elevate their communication, especially when stress levels are peaking. Instead of mom, right now I feel more like a therapist. When it feels like I have nothing left in my cup, I still have to reach in and find compassion because that is what we all need. 

It’s so hard though, isn’t it? We must be so intentional. Here are a few behaviors I am continuously working to improve: 

• I try to be present. How many times have you sat listening to your spouse or your coworker thinking “I can’t forget about that appointment tomorrow,” or something like that? All the time, right? Yikes; in the new Zoom universe, our habit of checking email or multitasking during meetings has only gotten worse. If you are truly present in a conversation, you aren’t doing anything else. Let’s just be honest with ourselves and admit that we aren’t fully present when we are multitasking. There is no such thing as multitasking while actively listening. 

• Focus on compassion. When having a conversation with someone, compassion isn’t always our first response, especially if we are having a hard time relating to what the person is saying. I feel like sometimes I have “compassion fatigue” these days. When I feel tapped out, I disconnect and exercise or spend time with family to recharge. Compassion also includes not judging the other person. If you struggle with this, try “sunset listening.”  When we look at a sunset, we don’t judge its shortcomings or find ways it could be better. It’s just beautiful…just the way it is. A conversation should be the same. 

• I try to respond quickly. This one embarrasses me most. Doesn’t everything feel like a pressing priority these days? When it feels this way, following up on questions or conversations (or texts!) may feel low on your list of to-dos.  People expect a response and when they don’t get it quickly, it could affect your relationship. 

Ultimately, when we listen and truly hear, it is not only about how we can serve each other in a more meaningful way. It is about making space for new voices and perspectives to influence and shape our communities where we can all thrive.