Can You Listen as if You Had all the Time in the World?

“How do you get out of a conversation when someone needs to tell you something important and difficult in their lives, and you want to listen, but you have to finish your workout?” a friend asked me recently.

This friend and I often find ourselves approached—particularly at the gym for whatever reason!—by acquaintances, friends, and sometimes strangers, who want pour their hearts out to us. For me, I like to think it is because I project approachability. Body language, perhaps? Reputation?  She, as a mental health counselor, and myself, as a health coach, pride ourselves on being good listeners.

I wholeheartedly believe that true listening is a great gift to others, and it improves our own lives as listeners by strengthening connections and relationships. Yet listening in a meaningful way takes time–a slowing down–in a world that embraces fast pace and busy-ness.

In my favorite chapter in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Vasudeva, the ferryman, teaches Siddhartha to listen deeply, become completely still, allowing Siddhartha to tell his whole story in his own time and in his own meandering way, and without passing judgement. As the two live together, they listen both to the sounds of the river and to people who cross their paths in this rare manner. Simply through truly listening to Siddhartha’s story, Vasudeva changed the man’s life, an important step to Siddhartha’s enlightenment.

I strive to improve my own listening in my practice as health coach and in my interactions throughout my day. As an extrovert, my particular challenge is to shut up and listen. Face it: anyone can give advice; not everyone makes time to listen or even understands how.

Listening is a practice I hold sacred. Still, my friend’s question is completely reasonable; how does one find a balance between the time we give to others and the time we spend on ourselves and our obligations?

And my friend is correct that we have this in common: both of us want to be there for people who come to us, and at the same time, both of us view workout time as also sacred. My friend was torn. She wanted to give of herself and her time, yet needed to figure out a way, at some point, to gracefully bow out of such conversations to give herself the time she deserved for herself and needed for other priorities.

The easy answer that came to me was to set boundaries. I know how to say, “Thank you for sharing this with me. I’d like to hear more, but I have to go now. Let’s find another time to talk again.” Good advice, but even as I heard myself say it aloud, I wondered, when do I remember actually saying something like that to disengage a conversation?

Perhaps I implicitly draw my own boundaries by simply knowing how much time I have to share at a particular moment and somehow people sense it and respect it? Maybe they sense when it’s a good time to talk or not, or end a conversation, by reading my body language? Humans are excellent at reading such cues, consciously or no. On the other hand, maybe I am not creating boundaries at all because I’d rather listen to someone’s story and get the warm feeling of helping another person rather than the less immediately rewarding work of getting back to my giant to-do list.

I scroll my memory through some of the times I had stopped and listened at the Y. I look for hints at what might be going on for me when people reach out. I try to recall when I might have felt torn and needed to consciously and graciously end such a conversation. But the examples that came to mind suggest just the opposite to me—that I tend to be generous with my time in a way that has felt completely comfortable to me, and I couldn’t remember when I’d needed to find a way to disengage.

I remembered the time I had been planning to get right back from the gym (I cannot remember what was so important to do) but instead found myself staying in the locker room for more a half an hour speaking to a friend who’d recently lost her husband. I left with the contented feeling that the time was well-spent because this friend needed someone to listen at that exact moment and I was lucky enough to be there and have the flexibility of my schedule to make time.

I recalled times I missed part of my workout listening and lending support to someone who was finding her way towards quitting smoking and losing weight. Far from begrudging her this time, I found myself invested in her getting healthy.

I thought to recent times when I offered a sounding board for someone considering a new career. I offered to get coffee with her to talk further, and still hope she takes me up on it.

Was it selective memory? I couldn’t recall my desire to share my time to listen to someone conflicting with my workout or getting things done in my life. Why or how was this so? Was I simply skillful at drawing boundaries as I’d suggested to my friend? And/Or was I investing in my chosen career by practice health coaching for free, and creating sales-pitch-free advertisement for what I do? Or had I lost sight of time boundaries altogether?

It would be nice if I just didn’t feel pressured by time as much as my friend does because I have very flexible time and I have no children. I have appointments and deadlines of course, and I am trying to build a business from scratch, but I can do this at my own pace and on my own time. I do often feel like I have the gift of opportunity to use my time according to my life priorities. And yet, I also often finish the day exhausted and with the sense that I haven’t gotten enough done on my to-do list to be satisfied. I’m working on that, but it’s still my reality, despite my apparent control of my schedule. Time pressure seems inescapable.

Amidst the frenetic pace of society and our busy-ness (real or created), can anyone find the luxury of time to fulfill our desires to be who we want to be in the world? That is a shift away from paying attention strictly to how to spend our time, to who we are. Instead of asking what do I want/need to do with my time today, one could ask, who do I want be today. Brendan Burchard suggests beginning every day by asking this question. I love this exercise because no matter how much or how little time or control over your time that you feel you have, you do have control over your behavior in that time.

This kind of shift–from feeling controlled by commitments to controlling one’s time to achieve purpose–is exactly what I endeavor to help people make through health coaching sessions. And yet, it still doesn’t answer the question of time. If being a good listener is the person my friend and I both want to be, not only must we devote the qualities of attention, stillness and non-judgment in those moments, but true listening also takes time. In order to feel heard, people need to be able to speak their whole truths, and sometimes it’s a round-about, messy process of getting to what they need to say. That is to say, it can take a long time to get to what a person needed to say in the first place.

It has been a particularly interesting time to grapple with such questions. I had recently spent hours listening to my boyfriend’s 18-year-old son get a lot off his chest. I didn’t feel impatient to end the conversation and get some work done. I wanted to listen to him for as long as he had to speak, but also as long as I could before I needed to leave for the open house later that day, that I’d created for my new office space.

There was plenty else I could have been doing during those hours, and plenty on my to-do list of “shoulds.” But this conversation felt more important. In my mind, I quickly distilled down my day into what absolutely had to be done by what time, and decided that left me hours to listen, and talk, and be the person I wanted to be that day. Here is a clue to a more concrete answer to my friend’s question.

At the end of every coaching session I ask my clients, what is your homework for next time? We usually try to come up with three concrete, doable tasks. I ask them to consider what came out in our conversation and the goals they are working towards.  If this was a session with my friend (the one who asked the question that started this whole musing), how might I end it?

Unfortunately, when she asked me the question, we didn’t have enough time (or privacy) for me to ask her more about when she feels conflicted, what exactly was going on for her in those moments, and how she might change her approach to achieve the balance she seeks in her daily life.

Rather I’ve meandered here through my own complicated relationship with spending time listening to others. (Thank you, reader, for listening.) Thus I suppose I’ll have end with three pieces of concrete advice I’d give myself, and hope you find them useful in your own life.

  1. At the beginning of the day, first ask myself, what adjective describes who I want to be today? Try to behave this way in the situations I encounter today,  as well as using this focus to decide how I will spend my time.
  2. Create both structure and space with my time: Each day, instead of cramming a lot of tasks into my schedule or generating a long to do list, consider only today’s one to three most important priorities—those which lead me to larger goals or are necessary to meet today’s true obligations. Leave myself ample unscheduled time. Acknowledge my tendency to underestimate the time it takes to accomplish tasks and snags I might run into. (Sound familiar? Most of us make this mistake in scheduling.) Leave additional time for unforeseen opportunities or challenges that might come up during the day.
  3. In my practice of listening, I plan to fully listen by talking less. I will try to remember that I don’t always need to give advice, but rather ask good questions and mirror back what I hear the person saying. As for timing and boundaries for such listening, I will keep in touch with how much time I can devote to these interactions by paying attention to: my must-do’s, time to take care of myself, and the spaces I’ve now wisely left in my schedule. I will use this daily practice to set clear boundaries for myself and mindfully communicate them to others, whether verbally or through the subtlety of body language.

Reader, what role does listening play in your life? I’d love to hear your reflections in the comments.