All critical relationships that you have will live or die based on the quality of your listening.
Sometimes, a relationship collapses right in the beginning. Imagine two people screaming towards each other, where they barely hear the other person, much less listening to them.
But, more often, a relationship degrades slowly over the years. Then, suddenly, the people you care about — your spouse, your best friend, your parents, or your children – are emotionally indistinguishable from strangers.
This degradation is rather insidious because you can rarely pinpoint what went wrong. You fight about the silliest of things – the way you cooked the chicken, the place they put the car keys.
And when talking about something important, you no longer trust whether they mean what they say. Worse, sometimes you feel you can’t even trust yourself. You are not sure whether you’re listening to them or the voices in your own mind about them.
This is not trivial. The quality of your relationship affects your physical health. Listening attentively is not just some nice thing that you do for others. It is a factor that determines whether your life will be miserable or happy and healthy.
The Importance of dropping everything else while listening
Here’s the common advice about listening: when you are listening to someone, don’t do anything else at the same time. It’s a fundamental principle that is too often ignored.
Clearly, the degree to which you practise this principle is a function of the depth of conversations. If you are driving, and your husband wants to talk about his turn cooking dinner, you probably don’t have to pull over and discuss the merits of having spinach over bell peppers.
However, the principle should be applied more often than you think.
If you are on your phone, and your wife or child say something about what they observe in the world, put your phone away, face your body towards them, and engage them fully.
In fact, even if you are working at home on your computer or doing something that is genuinely productive, you may still want to turn off the screen and project your undivided attention towards them. Or, better still, don’t bring your work home.
This is important to serve two levels of tarbiyah (education, development or cultivation).
The tarbiyah of your family
When they talk to you, there’s an opening for you to guide them. What someone says (or types or writes) often reveal a layer of the person’s current beliefs.
However, it is not always apparent on the surface meanings of their words. By dropping everything else, you have a better chance of seeing that layer. Only then can you intelligently interact with the person that you love, to navigate them away from harmful beliefs, and reinforce ones that better equip them to face reality.
If you keep missing these openings, you allow those harmful beliefs to fester. Those beliefs will lead them to small, yet destructive decisions. And one day, perhaps years from now, you will realise you’ve lost them, and that bringing them back to the right path is tiring and utterly painful.
The tarbiyah of your own nafs (self, psyche, or the you that experience the world).
As you become more mature and educated, you realise what we call life comprises mostly of little moments. The more you can infuse gratitude in those moments, the more intensely beautiful your experience of life will be.
Listening happened naturally when we were little (remember how transfixed tiny children are when listening to their grandparents telling stories). As we grow older, however, sustaining attention when listening to people we love becomes noticeably harder. Our intensely addictive devices don’t help the matter.
And just like how listening to your family members helps you guide them, it also allows them to guide you. The things they say can help you reconsider even your foundational beliefs about the world.
So, reeducate your nafs to sharpen that ability again. Start with dropping everything else when you’re listening to your loved ones.
‘Yeah, but I got bored listening to them.’
My father-in-law doesn’t speak Malay, my native language. And because of my limited grasp of English and the non-existent understanding of Arabic, I struggled, in the beginning, to stay interested when he was speaking to me.
But I was curious about what he was trying to say. More importantly, I love my in-laws as I do my parents, and listening to others is how you show you love them.
So, when he was speaking, I decided to drop everything else. Not physically, because I wasn’t on my phone. But I noticed my wandering mind holding multiple thoughts at the same time. I dropped them all, and use the freed energy to piece together everything he said.
It wasn’t perfect, but I did the best that I could.
And the best that I could was enough. I ended up appreciating his eclectic experiences and opinions: a horrifying coup d’état in Yemen, the building of roads stretching the deserts of Saudi Arabia with Italian engineers, the fantastic quality of milk in the Netherlands. From then on, I always look forward to listening to him, as challenging as it may be.
Other people are not boring. Each person we listen to is a unique universe of colourful stories and thoughts.
Whenever we find ourselves bored while listening to others, it means that we are either too dumb to understand and appreciate those colours, or, more likely, we simply haven’t given enough effort to do so.
Mirrors of the world
Things that are said to you are pieces of glass that reflect the world. It takes an honest effort to sort them out: to throw away the fractured, useless fragments and to put together the fairly good ones into mirrors. The better the mirror you put together, the better it helps you to see the world.
Listening attentively makes your experience of life moments more captivating, makes others more likely to love you, helps you think more precisely in the sea of distractions, and protect you and people you care about from falling apart.
So, drop everything else, and listen.