We were taught how to speak correctly and persuasively but not how to listen attentively or empathically. This is one reason why, more than ever, we interrupt and talk over others, engage in dialogues of the deaf, and try to shape the narratives we want others to believe. You can get a doctorate in speech communication but there’s no comparable accolade that certifies you are a good listener.
Listening, not talking, nurtures relationships, solves problems, enriches experience and enables wisdom. Listening, not talking, helps us sort fact from fiction, discover truth and detect deception. Understanding and being understood only happen when we take the time and give sufficient effort to listen. Sometimes, the words we least want to hear are the most beneficial. While we take listening for granted – because we have ears – how well we listen, to whom we listen and when we listen profoundly determines the substance and quality of our existence.
Poor listeners aren’t necessarily boorish people. They likely believe in their hearts they’re being helpful by finishing our sentences or interrupting our thoughts because they think their views are more important than ours. They are the product, or perhaps the victims, of a pervasive culture that prizes personal advancement more than the discipline needed to listen respectfully and carefully. They are unaware that, much like reading, the ability to listen degrades over time when not done repeatedly.
Hearing is not the same as listening. The former is passive; the latter is demanding of concentration and energy. To listen is to figure out what someone is thinking as well as feeling and to openly demonstrate we care about knowing. Listening is a mindset more than it is a check list of do’s and don’ts. We can close our eyes but we can’t close our ears – suggesting that listening may be more important to our evolution than seeing.
Listening requires two primary attributes – curiosity and patience. Good listeners are good questioners. Genius begins with a question, not an answer. Talking about yourself is a form of conversational narcissism that adds nothing to your knowledge. People who believe they’re smart are often the worst listeners because they assume they already know what others are going to say. And since those who brag the most are usually the least accomplished, unless asked, we should be more dispassionate in speaking about our achievements.
To understand why we don’t listen is to become more aware of some of the innate biases that distort communications. Primarily among these are confirmation bias and expectancy bias, which are the product of the brain’s craving for consistency in our beliefs. To paraphrase Goethe, we hear only what we already understand. Without realizing it, we categorize people before they even start talking, then we listen selectively to what fits our preconceived notions and deny what doesn’t.
Our emotions dictate what we hear. If we’re downcast or depressed, we hear the bad news. Conversely, when upbeat, we hear the good. There’s no in-between state of mind that enables us to get the full meaning of what the speaker intends to convey. Becoming a better listener is to appreciate that the world is easier to fathom and thus navigate when we understand that all perception, hence all behaviour, is a consequence of our emotions – like pride, jealousy, fear and vanity – more than logic or reasoning.
What makes a good listener? In my courses on Negotiating, where information is defined as the ultimate source of power and discovery of needs the avenue to success, the answer I most often get from attendees is “ we need to listen harder.” Which means exactly what? Perhaps Harriet Lerner had a good answer: “Listen with the same passion with which you would want to be heard.” Because it’s amazing what people will tell you when you actually listen to them.
My recipe for “listening harder” is to focus on what they’re saying, not on what you’re thinking. Pause (for about two seconds) before responding. Ask yourself: why is he (or she) telling me this? Get comfortable with silence and listen “between the lines.” (In China, children are taught how to listen to what is not said and to pay attention to tone.) Learn to listen with your eyes – research tells us most of the meaning is in the body language, not the spoken word. Listen for motivations (see peeling the onion). Be cognizant of distractions (put away the cell phone). Since meaning is in the receiver, not the sender, reflect back what you heard to ensure you got the message.
Listen for cultural differences. There are eight dimensions to cross-cultural communications, so what we see and hear depends on where we sit on the continuum of nationalities. For example, in high-context cultures (like Asia), communication is highly nuanced and layered – messages are implied, not plainly expressed. In low-context cultures (like North America), communication is precise, simple and clear – we take things “at face value” and repetition is appreciated. Asians are also more than twice as tolerant of silence than are North Americans. These differences are meaningful.
Canada is one of the most culturally diverse countries on the planet and English one of the easiest languages to misunderstand. According to Bill Bryson, there are 7,000 English words that have entirely different connotations depending on where they’re uttered. Lexicographers estimate the English language consists of about a million words and is expanding all the time. Cyril Connolly, a literary critic, has said English is “like a broad river being polluted by a string of refuse barges tipping out their muck.” Chinese is also evolving and contains 370,000 words (French and Russian have only about 130,000 words). Google says “the average active vocabulary of an adult English speaker is around 20,000 words.” So most of the words we hear tend to go right over our heads.
Listening does not imply agreement. It simply means we have something we might learn. Good listeners understand that today’s post-truth world begets ideological divisiveness, entrenchment and conflict. They endeavour to cope with contradictory ideas, increasing uncertainty and the subtlety of grey (not black or white). They understand there’s more to hear than what first appears to be so and that there can be multiple truths. If only we could just listen to one another. Because listening begets listening – it’s the engine of cooperation, ingenuity and progress. Can there be a better reason to become an accomplished listener?