One of the main reasons behind ruined relations is “poor listening.” Therefore, if you would like to develop better relations with your spouse, child, friend or colleague, you need to work on being a better listener. In this article, I will illustrate five habits which are integral part to communication skills.
1) Listen without Interrupting
It is obvious that when we talk, we like others to listen to us. When people listen to us, we feel valued and respected. Ironically, when others talk, we forget the value of listening and tend to jump in the conversation interrupting the speaker. To avoid this bad habit, let us identify the reasons why we interrupt others and train ourselves to avoid these pitfalls.
A) Feeling Insulted
To be a good listener, you need to train yourself to receive criticism with an open mind. Be calm and seek clarity from your conversational partner to ensure better understanding of what the speaker is saying and of what you may need to change. Remember that listening does not mean that you agree with the speaker, it just means that (1) you have good character, (2) you want to ensure accurate understanding, and (3) you want to tell your partner that they had an opportunity to speak.. To attain this goal, try to be calm when receiving criticism until it becomes second nature.
Here is a great example from the life of the prophet (S) to illustrate how good listening requires calmness, illustrates self-confidence and leads to magnificent influence. Once ‘Utbah ibn Rabi’ah agreed with the pagan leaders to dissuade the prophet from his Da’wah. Therefore, ‘Utbah approached Prophet Muhammad (S) with the following message, “O Muhammad, you know your social and lineage status in our land; yet, you brought us a grand matter—through which you disunited us, rebuked us and mocked our idols. So listen to the following offers so that you may accept one of them.” “Continue Abu al-Walid,” said the Prophet (S). ‘Utbah continued, “If you are looking for money, we shall make you the wealthiest of us; if you desire sovereignty, you shall have the final word in all of our matters; if you are looking for kingship, we shall make you our king; and if you need medical treatment, we shall pay for your healing!” The Prophet (S)’s immediate response was, “Have you finished, Abu al-Walid?” When Abu al-Walid answered in the positive, the Prophet (S) recited the beginning of Chapter 41 of the Quran and prostrated when he reached the 38th ayah. Impressed by the beauty and power of the Quranic message, Abu al-Walid prostrated with the Prophet (S). When Abu al-Walid turned back to his people, they said, “This man looks different.” They were even more surprised to hear Abu al-Walid’s comment, “I listened to a discourse that is neither magic nor poetry, and you should let Muhammad continue his mission…”
B) Feeling Knowledgeable
You may interrupt a speaker because you feel that you can anticipate what he or she is about to say. This mistake usually occurs when someone is reporting to you a story or a piece of news that you have already heard. Imam Ata’ said, “Sometimes a person may narrate a Hadith to me, and I would listen attentively as if I never heard it before even though I had heard before he was born!” In his al-Riyad al-Nadirah, Ibn Sa’di suggests that not only does good character require attentive listening to what one might have known before, but it should also show the speaker that one learned from him or her! Ibn Sa’di argues that this kind of attentive listening will, “motivate the speaker, make him happy and protect you from self-conceit.”
C) Rushing to Judgment
Have you ever made up your mind before the speaker’s message was fully delivered? If yes, this can be called distorted listening. Talking about the etiquettes of debates in his al-Faqih wa al-Mutafaqqih, Imam al-Khatib al-Baghdadi say, “If a debater understood something from the initial presentation of his opponent, the debater should not be quick to pass a judgment since the opponent may mention something at the end of his presentation that explains his initial remarks in a way different from what you first understood.”
D) Countering the Speaker’s Anger
When the person conversing with you gets angry, do not interrupt. Rather, wait and give him or her time until their anger is absorbed. Shouting back and raising your voice with frequent interruptions makes this into a verbal fight and not a fruitful conversation. You may choose to stay still and talk later when the person calms down and shows willingness to listen; otherwise, the whole conversation will be futile. Remember that controlling your anger is a sign of strong character. Imam Muslim reported that the prophet said: “A strong person is not the one who defeats people in wrestling; but rather, it is the one who controls himself when he gets angry.” Again, you need to keep training yourself to be calm till it becomes a second nature to you. This is what Imam al-Ghazali calls Tarwid al-Nafs “Disciplining the Self” or Mujahadat al-Nafs “Self-struggle”.
2) Listen with an Open Mind
This great attitude requires honesty, self-discipline and unselfishness. Negative feedback and new ideas may be two major causes for the absence of open-minded listening. In his Revival, Imam al-Ghazali offers three interesting requirements for a debater. First, for seeking truth, a person should act as if he is looking for a lost item, and it does not matter if the lost item is found through him or his conversational partner. Second, a person should see his partner as a helper, not an opponent. Third, as one might thank people for giving him or her the right direction when they are lost, a debater should thank his conversational partner when the latter identifies a mistake and/or reveals the truth. Our tradition tells us about a lady who corrected Umar (R) while he was delivering a khutbah. Feeling no embarrassment, Umar (R) remarked: “The lady is right, and Umar is wrong.”
(3) Listen with Undivided Attention
There are many ways that can illustrate attentive listening, such as, asking questions, repeating or giving a summary of what the speaker said, and facing the speaker. Hadith literature records a long but interesting narrative by Sayyidah ‘Aisha (R), known as Hadith Um Zar’ during which she discusses eleven types of husbands and their attitudes towards their wives. The ideal husband Abu Zar’ comes last in the list. Prophet Muhammad (S) listened attentively to this long narrative with no interruptions and, at the end of Sayyidah ‘Aisha’s talk, gave a clear comment which illustrated his attentive listening, “I am to you as Abu Zar’ is to his wife!”
4) Listen with Deep Empathy
Good listeners listen to the words as well as the feelings of their conversational partner—especially when emotional distress is involved. Take for example a discussion involving two spouses. A husband often mistakenly focuses on solutions and ignores his wife’s feelings. Sometimes, a wife just wants her husband to acknowledge the emotional pain or the many burdens she is going through. Imam al-Tirmidhi reported that Safiyyah (R) (who was a Jew and converted to Islam and got married to the Prophet (S)) was emotionally disturbed by a remark from Hafsah (R) who reminded her of her Jewish origin. The Prophet (S) turned to Safiyyah and praised her religious heritage and said, “You are the daughter of a prophet [referring to Musa (A)], and your uncle [referring to Harun (A)] is a prophet, and you are the wife of a prophet [referring to himself]. Then the Prophet (S) turned to Hafsah and said, “O Hafsah, have Taqwa of Allah!”
5) Listen with ‘Extra’ Moments of Silence
When it is your turn to talk or to comment, you may need to allow time for silence to refuel your mind and to ensure that your conscious mind, not your ego, is speaking. Imams Ahmad and Abu Dawud reported, on the authority of Uqbah ibn ‘Amr, that a man came and sat in front of the Prophet (S) and asked, “We know how to greet you, but how can we send our prayers for you during our Salah? Upon this, the Prophet (S) remained silent for a while until we wished the man did not ask him. Then, the Prophet (S) said, “During Salah, you can say: O Allah, may Your praise be with Muhammad the unlettered Prophet and his family as You bestowed your praise on Ibrahim and his family. O Allah, may Your blessings be with Muhammad the unlettered Prophet and his family as You bestowed your blessings on Ibrahim and his family. Indeed, You are Praiseworthy, Exalted.” Wallahu ‘A’alam!