Active Listening: a Primer

073f342I have a very simple rule when I’m writing, a hard rule of my own, but not one you’ll find as anything more than a suggestion in any course on effective communication: I actively avoid starting a sentence with the word “I”, alone or in a contraction. There’s some wiggle room for this in the middle of a paragraph, but I will struggle to never start a paragraph with it, and most certainly never the first paragraph. Writers with some skill greater than mine may debate the need to stick to it like I do, citing variety in sentence structure, but it’s my rule and I like it.

I do this because it helps me avoid becoming too egocentric. I can avoid the pitfall of seeming like it’s all about me, despite that it may at times be all about me, or at the very least when it is all about me it helps to avoid sounding pompous or pretentious, an easy trap to fall into, especially when it really is all about me (which, let’s be honest, it always is). I hope so, anyway. While my rule doesn’t fall into any of these categories, knowing the use of proper punctuation, structure, grammar, and syntax are also some of the best ways to write something people will be able to read easily, with less confusion and greater comprehension. The craft is just as important as the content.

I think of it as a crutch, like overuse of the exclamation point, or capitalization for emphasis when your writing should do that for you, and this rule, consciously applied, helps me avoid that. We use crutches every day, in many ways without thinking because they make life easier for us and some have become so implanted in our noggins that we’ve come to consider them normal (ellipsis, anyone?). Though crutches are generally harmless, there are times when they’re not, and one of those is when a friend comes to us in need of a compassionate shoulder.

I’ve touched on this before, but it bears refining: Active listening is a learned skill, as much as going to the potty or making a good cup of coffee, and it’s as important to effective communication as prudent use of the comma. If there aren’t courses in it there should be, if only to teach us how to drop those crutches we’ve come to think of as helpful when, in fact, they exist only to make us feel more comfortable, make us feel useful, and validate our own needs.

I think I’ve made my point about egocentric pomposity by starting each paragraph with “I”, so I’m going to stop now. My inner Hemingway is starting to have fits, and my inner Joyce is sitting back with a pint laughing.

As the go-to friend, we often don’t know what to say to help, and that makes us feel helpless too. We’ll offer unsolicited advice and pragmatic solutions to a perceived problem, when the actual issue at the moment is one of raw emotion, not practicality. Dick has dumped Jane, and Jane is heartbroken. She doesn’t need to hear about all the times you’ve been dumped and she certainly doesn’t need to be told about all the other fish in the sea. Jane is smart, she knows all of this stuff, but the thinking Jane is not the one snotting on your sleeve. At best in moments like that, it’s useless, but at their worst platitudes can seem patronising and offensive.

Active listening involves concentration, understanding, responding when appropriate and only to an appropriate degree, and letting the other person guide the conversation as they need. And it’s still a conversation so long as one person is talking (or snotting on your sleeve) and another is paying attention. It’s a skill any good therapist learns early on, but it’s not one exclusive to the profession or hard to pick up if you make the effort, and keep in mind a few good guidelines. See the post Shut it, Bobby McFerrin for my own quick’n’dirty list (it’s a good read, too).

Rules, ones we don’t just acknowledge casually but actively think about and use, are important to learning any applied skill. When we’ve become proficient, when they don’t require any more effort or thought than using the potty, then we can work on how to break them to the best advantage of any individual circumstance, like I did in this post to emphasise that very point. Active listening is a more detailed subject that deserves more space than I’m giving it here, and I will in the future, but this is a good start. We’ll move onto the harder stuff like participles, dangling or otherwise, as well as reflecting emotions and judicious nodding, later.

For now, just listen.

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