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In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, Adam S. McHugh, author of The Listening Life(as well as Introverts in the Church), shares important insights for transforming how you listen – both to others as well as yourself. In this final part of the series, McHugh lays out his thoughts on challenges and opportunities for introverts as listeners.

NA: How do you relate to listening as an introvert? Part of the common perception about introverts is that we are good listeners. Is that your sense as well? And, to what extent is there a difference between our proclivity to be in more of a listening role and our actual skills at listening attentively?

ASM: This goes back to the first question you asked me in the first part of this interview. When it comes to sitting quietly while others talk, introverts certainly have a head start. That is why we are often considered good listeners. But, genuine listening requires more. We may have muted exteriors, but we so often have noisy interiors that prevent us from truly giving our attention to others. We can be completely distracted in our inner worlds, but project a quiet listening exterior.

I wrote an article about this recently. The real challenge comes in making internal space for the thoughts, needs, and feelings of others. I am not convinced that anyone, of any temperament, is naturally gifted at listening. True listening is an act of selflessness, a work of ego surrender; most humans don’t do those things instinctually. Listening is always a skill to be cultivated, a muscle to be developed. And like a muscle, it will atrophy if you don’t maintain it.

NA: What recommendations do you have for introverts about listening, particularly in the workplace?

ASM: You can help create a culture of listening through leadership by example. No matter what position you are in, if you practice genuine listening toward others, you will influence others to listen as well. I have learned more about listening through observing good listeners than through any number of listening books and articles I have read.

The challenge for introverts, whether at work or in our personal lives, is not getting stuck in one-directional conversations and relationships.

NA: Yes. An quiet workshop participant of mine recently remarked that so many people talk at him at work that he often feels like furniture!

ASM: I had a friend who jokingly said she was mad at me because she had just gotten off a cross-country flight where she was seated next to someone who wanted to talk for six straight hours. She said, “And because of you, I felt like I should listen the whole time!”

Trust me, that is not what I am saying. That is a hostage crisis, not a listening situation. No one can pay attention to another for six straight hours, nor should you even try. A commitment to listening does not mean that you do not take opportunities to speak your mind, nor that you allow others to take advantage of your quiet bent.

NA: In one of your blog posts, you describe the origin of your becoming a listener. In fact, you go on to describe listening as “presence.” You write: “I had learned that presence is more than speaking, and that words can be barriers that separate us from others and from entering the moment we are currently living.” Would you say more about how to enact that “presence”? 

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ASM: The more I think about the topic of presence, the more I think it has to do with how we handle our own anxiety. Anxiety is one of the greatest enemies of genuine listening. It is anxiety that causes us to get distracted by our own thoughts, to interrupt others, to speak quickly, and to give superficial responses. Our anxiety particularly gets activated when people we love are in pain because it unsettles our own sense of well-being.

When I think of people who have a true listening presence, I think of a few people I know who project a calm and non-judgmental posture. They are the sort of people you feel drawn to because just in being near them, you yourself feel calmer. There may be some people whose hearts naturally beat a little slower and have a slight detachment that affects that level of calm. But again, I think that presence is something that is developed. And it comes down to greeting Anxiety when it arrives, letting it teach you, but not letting it rule your actions and responses.

NA: I never thought of greeting Anxiety before. Yet it makes so much sense to treat it as a being – almost to personify it. 

Thank you so much for all the gems you’ve shared throughout this series. I deeply appreciate your many insights, including: the distinction between external and internal attention; the “transformative power of being heard”; the inverse relationship between listening and power; and, the importance of truly stepping into the shoes of others. Thank you also for highlighting the significance of listening deeply to yourself. Finally, thank you for your recommendations for introverts as listeners, particularly in how to manage anxiety to listen with a calm presence. It’s been a privilege engaging in this dialogue with you.

Copyright 2017 © Nancy Ancowitz

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