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Cracker Barrel: The magical habit

Changing our habits is, by all accounts, a difficult and frustrating task.

From something as simple as learning to leave the toilet seat down or turning one’s dirty socks right side out before tossing them into the clothes hamper, to the truly challenging business of quitting an addiction such as smoking, old habits die hard.

Some may not be worth changing. If, say, you habitually mispronounce or misspell certain words, who really cares? Your former English teacher, and maybe your spouse. No big thing, other than the way it occasionally makes you feel like an idiot.

But some habits deprive us of enormous satisfactions.

Not listening comes to mind.

Living as we do in what has been called the Age of Distraction, most of us learned long ago to ration our energy when it comes to hearing. If we paid careful attention to every sound that strikes our ears, we’d go bonkers. From the radio and TV commercials to the neighbor’s leaf blower to the overhead plane to the music emanating from the iPod, a cacophony of noise assails us daily — much of which we correctly disregard.

If, however, the habit of not listening extends to other people, we are making a sad mistake.

In his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey called listening to others “the magical habit.” Why magical? Because the act of careful listening can build delightful and rewarding relationships. And getting out of our private concerns and into the thoughts and dreams of others is like taking a well-deserved vacation from our own egos.

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid to me,” wrote Henry Thoreau, “was when someone asked what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

Note the word “attended.” It’s the key to making the listening habit magical. Really listening to someone else is like going to the movies. We lose ourselves in the drama of a different life and see things from a new perspective. In the process, our horizons expand and our personal problems shrink.

Mahatma Gandhi described the rewards of getting into the other person’s movie when he said, “Three-fourths of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world will disappear if we step into the shoes of our adversaries and understand their viewpoint.”

Expand the concept to include neighbors and family and friends as well as adversaries, and you begin to glimpse the magic that is possible.

Is it outrageous to suggest that Gandhi’s “miseries and misunderstandings” might include things like divorce, extramarital affairs, youthful drinking and drug abuse, and maybe even gang violence? Not when you consider that all of the above are triggered, at root, by a sense of not being valued or understood.

A mindful listener allows others to express feeling and expound on ideas without censure. If we continually cut people off or refuse to get into their movies, we ultimately discourage them from trying to connect with us. Parents, especially, run the risk of alienating their children by responding to their concerns with either denial or advice-giving. Statements like “It can’t be that bad” or “You’re making too much fuss about this” are guaranteed to break down trust, for the simple reason that they refute the validity of the other person’s feelings.

Listening well is a skill that showers both listener and listenee with magical benefits. It requires no investment other than time and a willingness to concentrate. Of the many paths to the human heart, none tops this: an open ear connected to an open mind.

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel