I never used to be a good listener because I was too busy seeing people as audience, trying to capture and hold their attention with humor or stories. I think I learned this early, from my mother, who liked to collect stories about people who were "characters," and entertain her friends with funny imitations of them. I grew up assuming that getting together with people meant entertaining them.
Now, here in late middle-age, I 've finally learned that most people appreciate listeners more than entertainers, and I've gradually come to talk less and listen more. And find it much more interesting!
In the process, I've noticed different degrees of listening. There are some people who don't seem to listen at all, who are just ON, performing all the time. Remembering back to when I was that way, I recall being nervous, insecure, feeling pressured, as if I had to earn points by amusing everyone. So I now feel sorry for the entertainers and I've noticed something curious as I listen to them: I often recognize my own words from earlier conversations coming back at me, like an echo-chamber. (I'm chagrined to say that I can't resist telling them, "Yeah, I told you that.") This is disconcerting, because it suggests that these people don't remember our times together. And that makes sense, because if you don't listen most of the time, you won't remember who said what.
The other day I was walking with an acquaintance, and I realized that she was listening to just enough of my sentence for something that related to her, and then she'd jump in, interrupting. I'd be saying something like "I'm going to put a garden in our back field today," but at "garden" she'd be off and running with an elaborate story of woodchucks and slugs decimating her hostas.
The above two degrees: hardly listening at all, and listening just till the mention of a common interest, are people that I've learned to minimize contact with. People at the other end of the scale, the listeners, I try to cultivate.
And thus I learned a lot from my friend T., who died recently. As has happened so much since middle-age, when I began losing relatives and friends to chronic illness, heart attack, or old age, I didn't know how much T. had influenced me until she was gone. After death, in a person's wake, you can finally - with the ending of their story - see their real character. And so T.'s perennial self-doubt, her tendency to see herself as less than she was, had always seemed like a weakness to me when she was alive. But after she died, I realized that it was this self-doubt that made T. one of the best listeners I've ever known. She listened with full attention, patience, and compassion, because she truly believed that whomever was talking was more important than she was. She thus always put others before her, and at her memorial service the cars of friends kept coming and coming, filling up the big mowed meadow behind their barn, and spilling out to the driveway and road. What I had seen as a weakness, was actually a strength, an asset that attracted people to her.
I'm not as good a listener as T. was, but at least I do it enough now to know that it's the only path to doing it better. And being a better friend as a result.