Are you really listening? The answer is very likely a big fat no. How often do you actually focus on what someone is saying. Instead, there’s the running ticker tape: the Ocado shop, when will Brexit go away, yesterday’s deadlines, the overwhelming in-box, the beep of your iPhone, what are the kids going to eat for dinner? And you are not alone. Research shows that only 10% of us listen effectively.
We might think we are listening, but more often than not we are chomping at the bit to jump in and share our experiences or offer advice – but are we listening to fully understand what it is that someone is trying to tell us, a factor which negates the efficacy of our day-to-day communication.
I am just as guilty. Silly because I know only too well as a journalist that the best type of interview comes when you really listen; and that’s the words along with the pauses (which incidentally are just as revealing as the words).
I get the best exchange when I’m not ticking off a checklist of questions that I’ve prepared ahead, but when I take part in a conversation which evolves organically. It’s when I receive the best insights, the sound bites no one else has written and not the rat-a-tat-patter of well-rehearsed answers to questions the interviewee has been asked a dozen of times. And, which frankly is so much more enjoyable.
Active listening (the ability to unpick the meaning of words and silence) is so integral to good communication and yet, it is so rarely championed – or even taught at school or later on in life. Think of the many many tomes which have been written on the art of speaking or public speaking since the time of Cicero, but when was the last time you read anything about learning to listen properly, something that can definitely be improved upon with a bit of effort. As a child, my Granny used to tell me, God gave you two ears and one mouth so you could listen twice as much as you speak.
The late American psychologist Edwin Shneidman said, “When you listen for the pain, hurt and fear in people, it is always there. And when people sense you doing that with no other motive than to alleviate all of those, they will lower their walls and reveal them to you.”
Listening promotes empathy along with being in the present. It takes some practice to not judge or let your mind wander off. The way we listen and engage with others mostly boils down to a mixture of the following: only listening to what someone is saying through the prism of our own perspective; at other times, we are assumptive listeners (the most obvious example of poor listening) whereby we assume we know what the other person will say. We are so caught up thinking about what the other person wants to say that we don’t hear what they are actually saying, either because we are too impatient or as a result from a past experience with them.
There’s also judgemental and defensive listening where we might criticise someone – and body language is also very much at play here – to the extent that the person withdraws. And finally, a sort of authoritative listening, the kind of listening where someone always has to be right. There’s a lot of ‘should-ing’ that happens in this kind of conversation typically, an approach which implies that the speaker does not have anything of value to bring to the table.
To really listen of course, it helps to shut out the noise in our heads and adopt lightness. This is something that I come back to time and time again and I’ve written about before, but have you noticed that when there is a light hand on the tiller, (controlled, calm and confident) that everything just runs more smoothly, everything just IS better. Adopting lightness in every aspect of my life I have come to realise – relationships, work, conversations, that dealing with problems makes me feel more joyful and curious, more outward looking. Not only does this clear the mind and enable you to be more in the moment, it allows you to be a good listener.
How can we be better listeners? A good listener knows that, somewhat paradoxically we also need to learn to be a skilled interrupter by which I don’t mean charging in with our own ideas or advice before you have listened to the end of a sentence, but asking questions which delve deeper, are open-ended and which encourage the speaker to carry on. By doing so, you are able to elicit so much more from the person speaking.
Another key trait of the good listener is not to follow every digression introduced by the speaker; to gently but ever so skillfully steer the speaker back to the point he was making. A good listener doesn’t moralise either, they are kind ,patient (and often curious) enough to listen without judgement, to reassure someone that whatever it is that they are saying is not strange, that the vulnerability of the speaker is to be encouraged and explored.
The good listener might also add a few, judiciously placed confessions to assure that whatever the speaker is saying falls in the realms of normal or acceptable behaviour. They confess not so much to unburden themselves as to help others accept their own nature, experiences and story. For ultimately they are really listening.