It’s really interesting to me what we are formally taught. If I could create a curriculum for grade school, it would contain a course in each grade on listening. Just like with math and science, each grade would get progressively deeper into the subject. By high school graduation we’d all be pretty awesome at listening.
5 reasons listening is not so easy as you might think.
- Your brain kind of sucks at listening. It is hard-wired to hear what it wants to hear and is very adept at “filling” in the story. It is a master censor that tunes out certain things and tunes in other things. Have you ever asked someone to do something and they didn’t hear you at all? What would happen if you threw the word “sex” in the middle of that sentence? I bet they’d pay attention rather quickly.
- Signal to noise ratio is a key engineering concept when building instruments to detect sensitive information. Listening involves amplifying up the signal (what the other person is saying) to noise (your mind chatter). Your brain also sucks at multi-tasking. In the book “The Invisible Gorilla”, the authors go into this more. Not being able to multi-task is also discussed by John Medina in his book “12 Brain Rules”. It takes discipline to train your mind and keep it on task of listening without it wandering away into your to-do list, your to-worry list and whatever else is going through your brain. A yoga teacher referred to this as “monkey mind.” And you know monkey-mind. It’s like a 3 year old that got fed a whack of chocolate by a kind relative when mom and dad weren’t looking.
- Listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing is a transduction process. Vibrational energy is perceived by auditory organs and then sent along nerve endings to the temporal lobe of your brain for further processing. Of the spectra of vibrations out there, only some are perceived (dogs, for example perceive more than we can). Then of this subset we physically perceive, we can then go on and consciously think about that and make conclusions. For example, if I hear a dog bark I might instantly freeze in terror because I was attacked by a dog as a child. Someone else may hear a dog bark and feel joy. My skyrocketing heart rate came about from my brain processing some sound and recalling a story about that sound, adding in some emotions of terror and even some physiological changes in my adrenaline levels and heart rate. That’s listening.
- Listening is an act of humility. It is a giving. It is a gift. You are actually putting your attention on someone else. If you’re attuned to it you can kind of feel an energy shift. Have you ever had a physician listen to your heart with a stethoscope? You know that person is fully focused on you .. your core…your heart. I may be out to lunch but I really feel an energy shift in the room. I even feel it when the doctor listens to my child’s heart. To shift your attention, to focus your attention onto someone else is something well learned by observing it from another who is teaching it to you. You’re not going to pick this one up in text book. And you’re certainly not going to pick it up if your teachers, your parents, your role models have not exercised it greatly onto you. I think one of the biggest gifts you can give a child is your rapt attention listening to them spin their imaginations and tell their stories.
- Listening sometimes requires force shields up. Emotional contagion is something to watch out for if you’re providing all this attention. This takes active demonstration and practice. If someone is falling apart in front of you, if they are recounting a story that is drawing you in to feel horrible for them, if they are spewing out poisonous words and judgments, if they’re manipulating you with what they are saying ….then it takes discipline to remain neutral and grounded.
I had the great benefit of being formally taught listening as a student. When I was in Grade 10 (15 years old), I applied to be a peer counselor and received training, participated in workshops and role plays to develop my listening skills. Overall, I’ve likely put at least sixty hours of formal training into listening and paraphrasing. We were even video taped and then critiqued in a group on our ability to listen and paraphrase. I am sure that has helped me throughout school, career and personal relationships.
- Do not cut off people as they talk. If you must cut them off or guide the conversation, do so in an intentional and conscious way.
- Do not interject your own experience when they are trying to tell you something. This can shut people down and prevent them from opening up again.
- Do not look at your phone or other distraction (TV in restaurants !).
- Do not divert your attention to other things if possible.
- Do not be too close to a person and invade their personal space (Seinfeld – close talker!).
- Do not make assumptions. (from the Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz)
- Do not assume definitions of words are well understood. Troublesome words are “completion”, “success”, “happy”, “risk”, “issue”, “change”, “payment”, “deliverable” — you must take care to make sure your definition of these words are in sync with the other person.
- Do not take things personally (from the Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz) If you are listening to criticism or an unhappy customer or team member , this is especially important.
- Do make eye contact (enough but not too much)
- Do use open ended actions/words to keep conversation going (nodding, uh-uh, yes, really, I see, etc.)
- Do paraphrase back enough (but not too much). “So let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. I understood you said …..”, “So have I got this right? You’re saying…..”, So to summarize, “The problem is …. and you need me to…..”
- Do be across from the person if you can. You should not be angled away from the person. Try to sit across if possible.
- Do keep an open body posture (no arms crossed in front of you).
- Do resist any urges to tell them how you are more right than they are.
- Do gently steer and nudge the conversation so it’s not going in useless circles.
- Do find the message behind the words. They are rarely equal.
- Do be impeccable with whatever words you choose to use. (from the Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz)
- Do stay in “your own business” as Byron Katie says.
- Do notice any resistance in your body, especially if this is getting personal (a verbal attack and you’re flipping out into self-defense mode e.g. gut tightening, jaw tensing, hands clenching) as you’re listening. The “act” of noticing is great because your body would not be doing that without a reason. Your acknowledgement calms things down. Your oblivion to what your body does just amplifies the original sensations.
- Do leave the situation if you feel it’s not good for you to be there. This all assumes that you want to be engaged in listening, that it feels good overall to give this person your attention, and that something will benefit from this. If this is a bad situation and no good is coming from it, especially if you’re not feeling good, then do pay attention to that.
My advice is to don’t assume you have this skill or you do this well. I suggest you take inventory and really examine how well you listen —- even assume you do a bad job of it!! Ask your colleagues, your spouse, your kids if you’re good at listening. (And then listen to what they say, but it’s a bit of a paradox if you don’t have good listening skills)
You might listen well in one environment and not in another. Then work to see how much you can improve this skill. It’s like a muscle, the more you condition it the better it works. The benefits will appear on multiple levels – I’m sure of it.
Copyright 2014 Sunita Alves