Learning to listen one benefit of 2020

It's time to look back at the year that was and reflect on lessons learned. Of course, learning a lesson is not the same as applying it, and I am far from skilled at practicing what I'm preaching.

While I never got around to picking up a new language or learning a new instrument, I think I've developed an important skill: the ability to listen. People at work and in my personal life have often told me to listen more. I would try, but actually I was basically still engaging with people with the purpose of convincing them of my view. The events of this year have made me realize that.

It all started with a self-imposed silence as we went into that first lockdown. I spent a lot of time listening to nature - but also to a great deal of Netflix and Reddit. My inner voice even quieted for a while. I guess it was in self-preservation mode.

That understanding of what listening meant really started to stick, however, when everyone else started communicating via Zoom and WhatsApp and Messenger and just picking up the phone. We couldn't be with each other, which seemed to make the sharing more deliberate - and increasingly, more intimate. I ached to hear what my friends and family had to say about how they were dealing with a daily life that seemed turned upside down. I had long conversations with people, including within my family, that I hadn't quite frankly bothered to do when life was "normal."

I was frustrated my own inability to solve this whole COVID thing. One result was that my mindset during these conversations switched from my reflexive mode of jumping in with advice to one where we basically commiserated and found peace in knowing that we were not alone.

Of course, I do like to help people fix things (metaphorically speaking - I am terrible at handiwork). And commiserating can far too easily turn into complaining, especially if it goes on for too long.

As we eventually settled in more or less to our "new normal," my appreciation for listening became more nuanced. I realized that it's not about me speaking fewer words and being silent. It's about focusing on the other person and shutting out the distractions. It's about listening as a form of recognition and sharing and understanding. It's about having a conversation, not just giving an update or trying to get my own point across.

This understanding of listening has not just impacted my relationships with friends and family, bringing us closer together. It has profoundly changed my mode of interaction with my community and my country. I began to participate in discussions, such as around the elections, with active listening rather than just observing with silent support. Sometimes making more of an effort to really listen seemed like it would be easy, because I felt a general affinity toward a specific group or issue. It is actually quite difficult to do, however, because it involves moving beyond my grasping a feeling of empathy to listening and understanding the experience of others as very different from mine. And it is really challenging when I try to listen to people who seem not to share my values or world view.

I have a lot of work to do there but I'm grateful that I can point to a positive lesson learned from this COVID year.

- Beth Smits of Hinsdale is a

contributing columnist.

Readers can email her at

[email protected].