How to Listen

How to Listen

We like to believe we’re good listeners. We also assume we listen with our ears. We don’t – we hear with our ears. Listening is a quite different matter. Most hear; few listen. Hearing is a natural act; listening is not. Just as the eyes don’t see – they convert light into electrical impulses that get sent to the brain for interpretation – our ears don’t listen. They are just anatomical conduits that transfer sounds to the brain for deciphering. That’s where we try to make sense of the incoming sensations. And that’s where our problems with good listening begin.

{ I’ve written on this topic several times. In the 80’s and 90’s, I wrote a monthly column for seven syndicated business magazines and devoted more than one to different aspects of this critical skill. Since we spend 80% of our wakeful hours communicating, I repeatedly witness the outcomes of our unwillingness to listen to one another and, in my teaching, continue to extol the essentials and benefits of improving our capacity to listen empathically. The more I do this, the more I learn about the why and the how. Because, simply stated, we are all lousy listeners.}

In school, we were taught how to speak, not how to listen. There are thousands of self-help books written on every conceivable topic, but there aren’t many on the art of listening. Given the assumption we do it naturally, the potential market of readers is likely minuscule. In my Negotiating programs, I say the ultimate source of power is information … how we acquire that should be obvious. Just as the ability to listen is a superb influencing tactic, it’s also an investment in time management – done well, it takes less time than having to deal with the misunderstanding, resentment and remorse that follows poor listening.

Most assess their listening skills in much the same way they judge their driving ability, thinking they’re at least “above average.” In my self and situational-awareness work with ascendant high potentials, I’m often astounded by the number who give themselves a “10″ (meaning perfection) when assessing their listening aptitude. This rating simply says, in a blatant self-assured way, “I can’t get any better … and, by the way, I also walk on water.”

The truth is: most of us don’t listen well. We tend to believe listening comes down to two things: not interrupting when others speak and offering supportive gestures (like nodding) and encouraging sounds. This is superficial listening at best. Good listening is more than that. Since meaning is layered and nuanced, we need to dive deeper or, as I’m wont to say, peel the onion. We need to listen with a curious mind and ensure the conversation is a positive experience for both. That happens when listening validates rather than alienates.

Poor listeners are either non-responsive or critical. They pretend to listen or do so selectively. They listen with the intent to reply, not understand. Combative listeners seek to identify errors in the reasoning of others or use their silence as the opportunity to prepare a response. When they’re thinking this way, they can’t be listening. Their objective is to win the argument, not understand why there is one.

Humans have an attention span of about seven seconds (a gold fish apparently concentrates longer). So we frequently engage in wishful hearing – a hard-wired bias that leads us to hear what we want to hear, not what is actually said or implied. And, although we may speak the same language, each of us speaks our unique version of it. Which is why listening to understand the intended meaning demands the art of interpretation and translation.

Listening is never effortless; it requires different levels of focus. First, we must attend to the act by expressing a genuine interest in the speaker. Then, we must reflect back what we heard to ensure accuracy – that the intended meaning is what was received. Since the mind is always in interpretation mode, we either ‘get it’ or we don’t. This check-in is what is known as quality communication. Then, we need to make sense of what we heard. Without understanding, a conversation is a waste of time. Finally, we must remember it … because almost 50% of what we do hear is lost immediately.

People rarely tell us what they want to say or what we need to know when we’re interrupting, criticizing, patronizing or arguing. Or when we get in their personal space, become too intense, display negative gestures, or try to get too familiar too quickly. Don’t tell them how you think they might be feeling. That’s presumptive and invasive. Just try to understand how the emotion depicted in their voice may be changing the meaning of what you’re hearing. And don’t forget – the speaker is also “reading” us as listeners. When they sense we’re not paying attention to what they really want to say, they end up telling us what they think we probably would prefer to know with the least amount of words possible.

Good listeners remove distractions, like cell phones, that impair focus and a feeling of connection. The brain cannot multitask. Superb listeners periodically ask constructive and respectful questions that encourage deeper discovery and insights. Pertinent and appropriate questions tell the speaker they’re not only being heard, they’re being understood. Relevant questions, politely asked, suggest more information is required to better comprehend what the speaker is trying to communicate. Listening is one half of a productive two-way dialogue.

Good listeners are comfortable with silence. They regard it as the time to likewise remain silent. So, they listen “between the lines“ to try to ascertain what the silence might mean. They ponder the possible meanings of what’s not being said. They realize meaning is often conveyed more by non-verbal signals than words, particularly when the issues are troubling. They “listen” with their eyes as much as their ears and use their own body language to project support, understanding and alignment.

Good listeners create a safe environment in which difficult, complex or emotional issues can be freely discussed. They amplify, energize and clarify by making timely suggestions that open up alternative paths for conversation. They empower others by providing them with the rarified psychological air needed to collaborate and grow. Ultimately, genuine listening says “I’m interested in you as a person.”

Good listeners make us feel better about the matter under discussion as well as ourselves. They understand the importance of self-esteem in opening up the lines of communication. They discern the emotions behind the words, then acknowledge and validate those feelings in a nonjudgmental way. They know listening is a great leveler in conflict situations – it’s impossible to sustain one’s anger in the presence of an empathic listener.

It’s amazing what people will tell you when you actually listen to them. Great listeners have an insatiable curiosity and are remarkably patient and disciplined. They seek to understand before they can be understood. They know that what people say and what they mean are often two different things. They know the more deeply we listen, the more eloquently others will speak. They listen with the same sincerity and commitment with which they would want to be heard.