Being A Better Listener
“I cannot believe you remember that!” my friend said, stunned that I recalled something he had told me years ago. I found myself feeling surprised and even a touch self-conscious. Is it that abnormal to remember things people tell you about themselves?
This wasn’t the first time this has happened to me, and it got me thinking.
What are our expectations about listening and connecting with others?
Isn’t it entirely reasonable to expect people to hear and remember the things we tell them?
We should expect this when we assume they are truly listening.
Now let me assure you my knack for remembering details of past conversations isn’t the result of an incredible memory. Though I consider myself a decent listener, I was keen to further understand and hone the skill. When Kate Murphy’s book “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters” came out, I wondered;
What was I missing?
Upon reading the book, here are my 3 biggest takeaways:
REV UP THE INTENSITY
As with any skill you are seeking to improve there are several variables you can adjust to improve your listening. Intensity is by far the most important. The more effort you put in the greater the outcome.
No person has taught me more about how to put the extra effort into listening than my son. Kyle is 14. From the moment language was in his grasp, he’s loved to talk to anyone that will listen. As his mom, that is often me.
Several years ago, Kyle started getting into gaming. He wanted to share ALL the details. My interest in gaming has never matched his enthusiasm, but I wanted him to feel like he could always come to me to talk. So I listened ... or at least acted like I was.
Kyle is excellent at reading people, and on more than one occasion he called my bluff. No amount of eye contact, head nodding and “mmm, yes” statements hid the mental side trips I was taking.
It turns out “fake it ‘til you make it” doesn’t work when you really want to level up your listening skills.
What does? Cranking up the intensity on effort.
Imagine your Superpower becomes listening
A good listener recruits several senses to engage fully in the process. It can be energy intensive as your brain processes all those inputs and tries to find meaning.
Co-managing the attention you give to both the person you are speaking with and yourself makes it doubly intense.
What does the balance of full-focused listening look like?
Attention on THEM:
WHAT people say
HOW they say it (tone, word choice)
WHAT THEY DO while talking (non-verbal cues)
WHY- why are they telling you what they are telling you?
Attention on YOURSELF
Self awareness on your mental bandwidth.
When do you start to check out?
How can you bring yourself back?
Staying in “receptive mode”
Are you open to hearing a different belief than yours?
Removing judgment from listening results in a better learning experience.
In contrast to the passivity of hearing, listening should be an active process. Otherwise you can readily have a conversation with someone, hear what they say and make no gains toward understanding or connecting with them.
And as you rev up the effort, also listen for feedback. A couple weeks ago my son, unsolicited, told me that I was such a good listener that I should consider being a therapist…. the other kind. :)
ASSUMPTIONS are like EARPLUGS
Assumptions muffle the message, sometimes entirely block it out. Yet we all make them.
Our brains work by constantly trying to predict the future based on past experiences and beliefs. Have you ever finished someone’s sentence? If your answer is yes, have you ever wondered if you predicted that ending accurately?
How we perceive information is rarely discussed, but we assume a tremendous amount based on words exchanged. Likewise, we interject meaning into silence. These tendencies are vulnerable to drawing negative conclusions.
The problem with assumptions in communication is we can’t know for sure what someone means unless we ask. Consider this when getting to know someone like a new client and most certainly in long-term relationships.
Yes, Bieber has already appeared on the blog, here.
When meeting someone new there are many factors that influence your perception before you really get to know them. Stereotyping and labeling is something we do reflexively. Purposeful listening can help negate the downfalls of these biases.
To listen with an open mind is to provide yourself with the potential to be surprised. Our brains love that and so do those we hear.
Comfort in long-term relationships can produce complacency in listening. We think we know our partners, close friends and family members so well that we commonly don’t put the effort into deeper listening. We suffer from “closeness-communication bias”, overestimating how well we understand one another. But as time passes we change as individuals and these changes aren’t always obvious: even to those with whom we are closest.
To avoid making assumptions use clarifying questions. Clarifying questions:
help us better understand someone
learn something new
more effectively guide our responses
The goal of listening is to understand. This doesn’t mean you have to agree. But thoughtful listening can reveal alternative viewpoints to consider as you search for your truth and strive for connection.
“Good listeners know understanding is not binary.
It’s not that you have it or you don’t.
Your understanding can always be improved.”
Becoming a good listener is a process of forming an identity with room for continuous growth. It’s not following a list of DO’s and DON’Ts.
As I mentioned before, I thought I was a good listener before reading this book but through the process of reflection and application I’ve realized I can always be better.
Here are the things I am working on now:
Allowing for the time and space of silence.
Silence can be necessary in a conversation. It allows for processing and more thoughtful responses. Additionally, allowing time and space shows you are willing to persist.
“Sometimes it takes more than one conversation to hear someone.”
Developing better self-awareness of when my mind starts to wonder and working to bring it back.
Do you practice mindfulness meditation? Apply those skills to listening. Learning to monitor mind transgressions and pivot back to the conversation is important.
But really, I'm all ears
Sometimes you might need to say no. Other times it's something like this: “Hold on and let me finish this real quick. I want to give you my full attention.”
If you think you can listen well and multitask you’re wrong.
To make sure I am hearing what someone is saying I often repeat what I heard in my head to help in the recall.
Leave the conversation with answers to these questions:
What did I learn?
What was most concerning to that person today?
How did that person feel about what we were talking about?
Talking less about myself - Then learning to talk more about myself.
That voice in our heads doesn’t necessarily stop while we listen. Depending on the context, we want our turn as well; that’s justified. If your goal in listening is to learn about your conversation partner, refrain from shifting the conversation towards you.
On the other hand, I’ve found myself so engrossed in listening that I don’t make as much of an effort to reciprocate. It’s important to be aware of the flow of communication.
Naturally, it's a two-way street
Supporting Not Shifting the Conversation
When debating or discussing a topic with someone try to refrain from focused listening on how they might be wrong. This builds potential barriers to deeper understanding.
Consider suppressing the impulse to:
suggest you know how someone feels
tell someone what to do about the problem
minimize their worries (although you may feel it is supportive)
reject their experience with forced positivity
This book was written before the events surrounding COVID-19. Take that into consideration with the following statistic: “In a 2018 survey of 20,000 Americans, almost half said they do not have meaningful in-person social interactions” Back in 1980 20% surveryed felt that way. I’m curious what 2021 will bring.
We need to prioritize better listening. In our culture of convenience and rapid exchanges, this may be a struggle. I’m hopeful that with increased effort we can make more meaningful connections.
Research shows that the more people you truly listen to, the better you are able to examine different sides of an argument and the more creative you become in finding solutions to problems.
Deep listening reveals that we are more similar than we are different: we seek love, crave connection, and yearn for purpose and fulfillment. Better listening allows us to learn from others, and in the process, find out more about ourselves.
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