Listening is one of the most basic skills required in human communication. Then isn’t it strange that there is no formal training on how to listen in our school and professional system? The lack of emphasis on listening could be because we believe that listening comes naturally to us as human beings. But from what I have learned in life, listening is not a natural skill and it takes conscious effort to listen well. Below are my biggest learnings on how to listen well:-
1. Why Do We Listen?
The first and the most obvious, question to ask when we are listening is “Why?” Are we listening because then we get our chance to speak up? Are we listening because we have an agenda in the conversation and are thinking about how can we achieve that? Or are we listening because we just want to be polite, and otherwise we couldn’t care less about what the other person is saying? More often than not, we listen because of one of the above reasons. And it is not because we are selfish or deliberately trying to be rude, but because this is our normal way of operating in most conversations in life. Speaking up and making others agree to what we have to say gives immense pleasure to all of us, and in most conversations, we unconsciously try to achieve that.
I claim that the only objective of listening, whether it is your spouse, friend or a business colleague at the other end, is to get what the other person is communicating. Not what the other person is ‘saying’ but what he is ‘communicating’. And this requires conscious effort and continuous training in the act of listening because it is very natural to fall back into the default mode of listening.
2. What Do You Listen For?
Listening effectively is much more than hearing the sound and words coming out of the other person’s mouth. True listening happens when you ‘get’ the other person’s world – i.e. when you empathically see and feel about the situation just as the other person does. It is about getting the emotions – of joy, anger, frustration, resentment, etc – which are often hidden beneath the words actually being said.
Can you feel the other person’s pain, fear, excitement, or happiness? True listening is about standing in the other person’s shoes and seeing the world from his point of view, and it takes a lot of effort to do this well. It is as much about hearing what is not being said as it is about what is being said. True listening requires patience to wait it out and the courage to go beyond our personal prejudices and see something from the other’s point of view.
3. How Do You Listen?
So the next question is – how do you do that? Based on my experience, here are some guidelines which can help anyone to listen well:-
Shut Up. Don’t interrupt the other person. Ever. Remember, you are supposed to be listening.
Be attentive, alert, and interested. Remove any distractions like mobile phones from the scene. Let the other person know that he has your full attention through nonverbal behavior.
Use filler words like “uhh”, “hmm” and body language to acknowledge what he is saying. Invite and encourage the other person to say more by saying “tell me more about it”, or “I am listening”.
Be ok with silence. This often gives the other person time to gather his thoughts and speak up again.
Listen for the emotions behind what is being said and sincerely attempt to step in the other person’s shoes and feel the same emotions yourself.
Hold any judgment or advice if it comes up in your head. Do not try to comfort the speaker by saying words like “It is not that bad” or “Give it some time”. Don’t get angry or respond in any way. Just listen. And feel.
“We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.”
― Susan Cain
4. Who Decides if You “Got it” or Not?
The above guidelines are not a guaranteed way to listen to someone and don’t assume you have listened well because you think so. The speaker is the only person who gets to decide whether you “got” it or not. After the speaker has finished saying whatever he had to say, sum up whatever was said and how he feels. You don’t have to agree or disagree with the speaker at this point, you only need to paraphrase what you have understood and ask the speaker for validation. When the speaker says that you “got” it, make sure he is not just saying that to be nice or to avoid an uncomfortable environment. Only then can you be sure that you have listened to what was communicated. If the speaker says that you didn’t get it, ask him to explain more and repeat the process.
5. Listening Creates our Perceived Reality
When we listen to someone, we create our own perceived reality. This perception is unique to each person, and if 10 people were to listen to the same thing, you would agree that it is possible that they can create their own interpretations and perceive the reality in 10 different ways. How we listen is determined by a certain set of filters like our culture, habits, values, beliefs, intentions, and expectations. Most often we unconsciously pay attention to certain things and omit certain others from our listening based on these filters. It is these filters, and the reality they create for us that help us make each and every decision in life.
Realize that each one of us has our own set of listening filters which creates our own reality which is neither any truer or falser than anyone else’s. This is a big first step to work with people who see the world differently from us. True listening often requires the patience and courage to see and acknowledge how the speaker has perceived his reality. It requires the compassion to understand another’s reality, especially when it is different from our own.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” — Stephen R. Covey
6. Listening Creates Connections
When done well, listening creates deep understanding which leads to trust and respect among both parties, even if you were to disagree with the subject at hand. It enables the speaker to release his emotions and feel at ease, often even helping him to crystallize his own thoughts in the process. It reduces stress and helps to ease the situation which creates a foundation – a safe environment in which there are opportunities for collaboration and problem-solving. True listening leaves both parties with a stronger bond than when they started.
Another way to look at listening is like an investment. If you spend 30 minutes truly listening to someone, it can create a connection that will make your relationship stronger. A strong bond with someone can help you avoid stressful situations and make decisions quickly in the future. Since this kind of listening is so rare in our ever distracted world of gadgets and notifications, it is all the more significant when it happens. To know that someone listened and understood what you said is a remarkable gift, and you should not miss a chance to gift it to others.
What I have described above is not easy, and it is very tempting to hit back with your own accusations when someone is angry or frustrated with us. But it (listening) is a skill which can be mastered over time. Most of our time spent in communication involves listening, and hence I can’t stress enough on its importance. I also believe that the ability to see a situation from another’s point of view and to shift perspective is one of our most important abilities as human beings and one which can help us solve many of the problems we face today.