The art of listening

We don’t really associate listening with communication.

We know listening is a natural part of the communication process. When we converse with someone, we’re not the only ones talking the whole way through so we treat listening as a sort of by-product of communication, and we don’t think about it much more.

To elaborate further, whenever there is a discussion about improving the way we communicate, we mention things like speaking slowly or clearly, projecting our voice and things like that, but listening is not regarded as something to learn or a skill to develop like the other things I’ve mentioned.

Listening is not as easy as you think, and selective listening is perhaps the biggest barrier in our ability to listen well.

Selective listening

Have you ever spoken to someone who has responded in a way where you know they just haven’t listened to you or listened to only a part of what you said or are even making conclusions or seeing the situation differently from you? This is can be down to selective listening. I think we all ‘suffer’ from it to some degree and, on the whole, it is natural.

There are primarily four root causes to selective listening:

  1. We want to control the situation. Before we’ve spoken to anyone, we’ve already mapped out in our head how the conversation should go and when we do talk to them, we only listen to those parts of what they say that fits with our agenda and narrative
  2. We have grown up with a set of beliefs and values, and zone out to anything that does not conform with that and treat is as unimportant
  3. Simply put, we don’t like the person we’re talking to, so even they say the most obvious fact and truth, our transmitter won’t pick it up
  4. We love to talk, so we can’t wait for the other person to finish talking so that we can say our bit, therefore we don’t concentrate on listening to them.

Why is listening important?

Listening is a fundamental building block to developing relationships with anyone, in any walk of life. When we listen to someone properly, we give ourselves a chance to see things from their lens. Whether we agree or disagree with their perspective is not important here. What is important is that we acknowledge and respect the other persons feelings and emotions and not belittle their opinion. If all people in a conversation do this, it can lead to a productive discussion and outcome. This applies in any situation, from big boardroom meetings to asking the waiter not to make your dish too spicy, listening removes any chance of unnecessary conflict and anger.

To put it in another way, can you imagine being in a relationship with someone who never listens to you? I’d say you’d feel resentment and be hurt amongst many other things. Listening is therefore a fabric of society and an essential ingredient to our success as individual human beings and when we come together as teams and communities.

How can I be a good listener?

You might be thinking, ‘well when someone speaks to me, I look at them and I listen…am I not doing it right?! What more is there to it?’

As I mentioned earlier, we may appear to be listening but in reality we’re only hearing. Hearing (unless you are deaf or hearing impaired) is merely the process whereby your ear takes in and perceives sound. Listening, on the other hand, is something we need to consciously do. It requires us to concentrate on the words being said and process them to find meaning. It’s by this very listening, we can understand a situation and move forward.

So, the first and obvious step is to concentrate! The other person is not in your head, so they don’t know whether you are actually concentrating or not. By looking at someone, you can’t always tell whether they are listening. That’s why we have to show visual and audio cues to let them know that we are indeed listening.

More on this is below, but before we get to that, we should consciously choose to be in conversations that we actually want to participate in. If you’re not interested in a conversation or it’s the wrong time, don’t engage! You show more respect to the person by staying out of a conversation than pretending to be in it for the sake of being polite. There are exceptions to every rule, but generally we should steer away from this.

Now that we are in a conversation that we want to be in, what can we do to make sure we concentrate and listen properly.

Putting our agenda aside

When I say agenda, I don’t mean that we’re all out to plot evil schematics with others, it’s more about putting aside your pre-conceived ideas of the situation or person (that have no real basis) and putting your own narrative to the side as well. We should be ready to receive a conversation with an open and neutral mindset. This will reduce the chances of misinterpretation. I know it’s not easy to merely set aside beliefs we hold strong, but we have to remember that we’re not forsaking these beliefs, rather choosing to absorb information without those filters to help us better understand what the other person is saying.

Repeating back what you have heard

Even when we have the best of intentions to listen and participate, we might not be able to, for whatever reason. We could be tired, have a headache or anything else. This comes back to choosing the conversations you want to be in, if you’re not up for it, don’t engage, postpone the meeting and so on. Of course, this isn’t always possible so a good way to let the other person know you’re listening is by at least concentrating on either the last point they make or picking out a specific point throughout their monologue and simply repeating it back to them. For example:

John says: Last weekend was so busy, we were packing for our holidays and going out to do last minute shopping. I heard Barcelona is such a good place to visit at this time of year, gosh I really hope I wake up and get to the airport in time.

You: Ah, Barcelona?

By simply saying ‘ Barcelona’ you are acknowledging that they’re being listened to and will likely lead to John talking more about how great Barcelona is.

Even if nothing is wrong at your end and you are all up for the conversation, try this really effective method.

Ask questions

An obvious way to show someone you’re listening and actively interested is by asking follow up questions based on what they’re saying. They will really appreciate this and feel valued and listened to.

Don’t interrupt them

Always let people finish making their point. Sometimes someone will say something that we so strongly disagree with that we will almost naturally, in reflex, interrupt. Apart from being seen as disrespectful, the risk you run by interrupting someone is that you’re not giving the other person a chance to finish their point, and you’ve made a judgement based on half a point or half the truth. If you let them finish, you’ll see a clearer and more accurate view of what they’re saying and, chances are, whatever they do say isn’t as controversial as you initially thought up in your mind.

The golden rule

Listening techniques do not develop overnight, you have to work hard at them on a daily basis. What helps me is remembering the golden rule set out by the Dalai Lama:

When you talk, you are only repeating what you know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.

Good luck!


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