Listening To Communicate

Communication lies at the very crux of human social interactions. Whether it is getting a point across among a group of friends, being able to give a successful presentation or having an effective one-on-one conversation with one’s boss, one needs to get the opposite party to listen and understand what is being said. For that to happen, one has to have the ability to get people invested or ‘buy in’ into what one is saying.

More often than not, people tend to get caught up in themselves, losing the ability to communicate effectively. Just Listen (2009) by Mark Goulston is an effective guide, combining techniques of persuasion and listening skills that help understand how to get others to listen, by listening to them.

Listening Initiates Progress By Helping To Overcome Resistance

Let’s begin with a hypothetical scenario. Steve is standing on the ledge of a high-rise, threatening suicide. While the authorities have surrounded the perimeter of the building, Lieutenant Williams, a negotiator approaches Steve to convince him against taking the plunge. He tells Steve that he can get help to deal with whatever problems he is facing and there are better options than hurting himself. 

Unfortunately, Williams’ offer for help angers Steve and he rejects Williams’ offer for help by responding angrily. Why does Steve respond in this manner?

The problem lies in how Williams communicated with Steve. Rather than listening to or understanding the problems Steve is facing, he offers help that he feels is needed. 

Next, imagine Lieutenant Brown approaching Steve. He listens to what Steve has to say, and then responds by saying, “You must be feeling like this is the only option you have left.”

Brown coaxes Steve to discuss more the problems he is facing. As he gets Steve to talk more, he helps Steve calm down and become more aware that there are other options apart from suicide.

What Lieutenant Brown has done is give Steve a listening ear, hear him out while he gets his frustrations out, and empathize with him. What this scenario brings forth is the fact that often, people simply want someone to listen to them, rather than give solutions. 

People tend to approach any conversation they have as though they are rational arguments. However, any type of argument is counterproductive to effective communication. They always create some form of resistance. Hence it is essential to firstly, not approach any conversation with a perception of arguing – rational or otherwise. Instead one has to listen to get others to listen.

Just Listen (2009) by Mark Goulston
Just Listen (2009) by Mark Goulston

Mirroring Emotions

Mirroring emotions, or, reciprocating, acknowledging and recognizing the emotions of those one engages with is programmed into the human brain. Cells in the brain called mirror neurons help to understand and experience the emotions that we see others emoting. A classic experience is the need to tear up while watching an emotional death scene in a movie. This happens because the mirror neurons help the brain perceive and understand the emotions in the scene.

The researcher V.S. Ramachandran even called mirror neurons ‘empathy neurons’. It is in fact believed that these could be the basis for human empathy. These neurons are also responsible for the human ability to appease, satisfy expectations, and seek the approval of others.

For example, when a teacher realises that her students are dozing off, it is the mirror neurons that make her chirp up and announce a five-minute break.

On the other hand, when feelings are not reciprocated with empathy, one is less likely to feel connected with others. Research has shown that a deficit develops in the mirror neuron receptors when mirrored emotions aren’t mirrored back. This deficit causes feelings of loneliness and disconnection.

Sadly, technology and the increase in impersonal communication via emails and messages, and because people today do not have the time to form communications, people do not mirror each other as they used to earlier.

Listening Relies On The Rational 

The human brain is divided into three layers, or thinking parts, that each experience the world differently.

The first layer, the reptilian layer, is reactive to the immediate situation and primitive. It is responsible for the fight-or-flight responses and doesn’t take time to think about or analyse situations. It takes action. Sometimes, the reptilian layer doesn’t act at all. It experiences a deer-in-the-headlights reaction and freezes up.

The second layer is the mammalian layer. Being more evolved, it is responsible for one’s emotions. It is the home of one’s inner drama queen! It is in this layer where all the powerful emotions such as love, anger, grief, joy, pleasure, jealousy and sadness arise.

The third layer is the rational, reasoning layer which is responsible for analysing the data that it collects from mammalian and reptilian layers. It then develops the next logical steps. This layer is the inner Mr Spock, always carefully weighing options and then making decisions on the course of action.

Everyone uses these layers in their brain while reacting to the world around them. Hence, in a conversation, if one wants the opposite person to be receptive to what they are saying, it is important to make sure that the person is thinking with the same layer.

Ensuring The Use Of The Rational Brain

We established that in order to have a rational conversation, it is essential that both parties in a conversation are using the same brain layer. However, before that, one has to be sure that they themselves have their emotions under control to get the opposite person to listen. Strong emotions such as fear, jealousy, panic, or anger can hinder one’s ability to reason. 

US Secretary of State Colin Powell was once asked to comment on his wife’s admission to a mental institution in front of 8000 people. Instead of reacting in anger, he composed himself and replied, “Excuse me – the person you love more than anyone is living in hell, and you don’t do whatever you can to get her out? Do you have a problem with that, sir?”

This ability of Powell’s to remain calm in the face of an explosive question only added to his reputation as a leader.

That said, not everyone has the ability to remain calm and composed all the time. However, it is lucky that one can regain composure by accessing the rational layer by simply acknowledging panic or threat.

In any threatening situation, the rational layer of the brain shuts down, and the amygdala – which controls the emotional aspects of the brain – takes over. Threats can also trigger flight-or-fight responses, letting instincts and emotional responses take control.

In such situations, expressing emotions out loud helps in putting the situation into perspective, and one gets an opportunity to calm down and think. research has also shown that simply speaking out fears, or naming threats helps cool down the amygdala, cause the reptilian brain to cede and let rationality take over.

That said, it is as important for one to let the opposite person have the space and time to address fears, cool down, and think. A rational brain in control always lets a person be more open to listening.

Displaying Vulnerability Can Help

One needs others to connect and respond to the emotions one feels. They need to have the chance to mirror those emotions in order to identify. Hence, when one is able to accept and show their vulnerability – emotions such as fear, helplessness, grief – others respond to those and identify with them. Vulnerability is a great tool to become a good communicator, and hiding vulnerable emotions won’t help others to understand the situation one is in.

For example, if a person is nervous and ashamed about being nervous while delivering a presentation, he is most likely to respond negatively or in anger if anyone makes an insensitive remark at that moment. The other person is most likely to mirror the emotion of anger, without understanding the underlying reason.

If the person would have been open about his vulnerability, the colleague will probably be able to empathize and respond, with kind words to help boost confidence. Similarly, giving others space to show their own vulnerability will enable one to understand what is actually the root cause of the person problem.

It is additionally important for managers and leaders to be able to recognise and address vulnerability shown by employees. Approaching them and letting them discuss their feelings, and giving them a listening ear, will most likely help to gain trust and show that they are cared for – an important skill for communication in times when stress at the workplace is high.

Levelling With Others For An Open Dialogue

When trying to get others invested in what one has to say, talking and opening about oneself is a great tool to get others to respond and interact. Creating an atmosphere of equality in a conversation helps create stronger bonds.

One of the ways to do this is the Side-by-Side approach, where one asks questions during a shared moment, and then follows with deeper questions to strengthen the connection.

For example, during a rather mundane drive to school, a father breaks the silence by asking his son which of his friends is most likely to get into trouble later in life. Surprised, the son thinks for a moment, and replies, “John”.

The father askes why did his son pick out John, to which the son replies, “His parents are divorced, and he has already been in trouble.” After a few minutes of silence, the father asks, “What would you do when you see John in trouble?”

 The conversation continues from there and the father and son duo discuss what can get kids into trouble, how can they be helped and so on.

The father, rather than questioning the son about his grades and getting stony replies, engaged his son in an interesting conversation and got to understand his son’s views on friendship, loyalty, and generally what his son considers right and wrong.

 Thus demonstrating an interest in other lives can get them to open up. Reaching down to their level is vital as it makes others feel valued.

Practising Empathy

Empathy is intrinsic to listening. However, while it is a known powerful tool, it isn’t intuitive. One has to practice displaying empathy to make conversation partners feel valued.

One can use the following guide to practice empathy.

  1. The first one has to identify and attach an emotion to what the conversation partner is displaying. Let’s say the conversation partner is displaying anger.
  2. Next, it is important to ask outright if the emotion is correctly perceived. One can say, “I’m sensing you are angry. Am I right? If not, what are you feeling?”
  3. Once the emotion is identified, one has to judge the level and depth of the emotion. One outrightly can ask, “How angry are you?” More often than not, this question gets an emotional response. One has to be patient and allow the person time to answer (and calm down if needed).
  4. The next one has to extract the reason for the emotional display by asking, “Why are you angry?”
  5. Once the reason is obtained, one should show the conversation partner a willingness to help, and that one cares about their feelings. This can be done by saying, “What can be done to make you feel better?”, or, “How can I help to make you feel better or calm down?”

A demonstration of empathy always helps others feels valued and cared for. Moreover, it gives the person time to think rationally, calm down and connect, making way for a great conversation, where both parties are heard.


Listening is a vital skill to have in any scenario. However, in order to get others to listen, one has to listen to them first. The brain’s mirror neurons are responsible for empathy and need to be mirrored back for one to feel what others are feeling. Moreover, one has to make sure that they themselves, and their conversation partners are using the same rational brain while conversing. This will help establish and strengthen the connection between the two parties and make way for effective communication where both parties hear and are heard.