Listen up!

“Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.

Epictetus, Greek philosopher
Gratuitous photo of my dog listening

When something important happens, whether positive or negative, what’s your first reaction? Most of us want to immediately tell someone about it. When we were kids, it might have been running home to tell Dad about getting an A on an exam or asking Mom to kiss a scraped knee. And while, yes, the “telling” was about what happened to us, what we really wanted to do was share the experience with someone we trusted.

But there’s a trick here. Sharing really only works if someone listens. Think again of a child telling Dad about that A. Dad says, absently, “That’s nice,” as he stares at his laptop or phone. That interaction was not satisfying for either of them and was merely telling and hearing but not sharing. Dad missed an opportunity to connect with his daughter and she feels like she was rejected and that her achievement doesn’t matter to him.

The types and quality of relationships we had as children with parents or others contribute or the level of attachment we had affect how or whether we create and maintain relationships and how we communicate. Did we have caregivers who were attentive to us or were we ignored? Did we receive more encouragement or criticism? Those with less attachment tend to have more anxiety about relationships and being heard, whereas those with more attachment creates a sense of security that allows people to be more vulnerable in conversations and listening. After all, if you expect to be criticized or berated, why would you want to listen closely?

Not surprisingly, then, as adults, we still have the desire to share something important that has happened, but have more ways to do so. Sometimes we may pick up the phone to call someone and tell them what’s going on, but increasingly we send a text or post on social media. We’re talking but it’s not immediately clear if anyone is listening. So we refresh to see if there’s a like or a comment. And repeat. But that’s closer to talking and hearing rather than sharing and listening.

Listening matters because it is one of the primary means by which we learn about the world in which we live, the challenges and successes of others, and engage and connect with people and our communities which gives us a sense of both belonging and safety. We can hear before we are born and it is one of the last senses we lose prior to death. But if we only hear and don’t take the time to listen, we lose out on that richness of life and connection with others, and they with us, because listening benefits both parties to a conversation. When we feel we’re not being heard, we feel more and more isolated and lonely.

But listening is hard. If it weren’t, we would all be doing it. And it’s more difficult to do so when faced with distractions and when, more and more, we are closing ourselves off from listening by, ironically, putting on headphones to hear something.

I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the topic from various sources, though primarily the excellent research Kate Murphy has collected in her book, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, which I highly recommend. Here are a few things I have learned along the way.

Why it’s hard to listen

  • We can think and hear faster than people can speak (called the speech/thought differential). Even if someone can speak as quickly as one of those voice overs at the end of an advertisement, the listener can hear that and still have plenty of time to think or be distracted. “I got the gist of it,” we might say, but it’s the details that really matter. Add to that interruptions or distractions on our phones or computers, and our minds start to wander. Microsoft research found that our attention spans dropped from twelve to eight seconds since 2000; by comparison, the attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. Ouch!
  • We think we know what the other person is going to say. Whether because we are following the general direction of the story the individual is telling or because we know the person well, we think that we know what is coming, so we may tend to tune them out. I was surprised to learn that smart people are worse at this than others – because they ARE smart, they come up with more things to think about (instead of listening closely) and are more likely to assume they know what the person is going to say. Worse, we tend to be less curious about those with whom we are close because we make assumptions about them and how much we know them (closeness-communication bias), which can result in long-term relationships to seem stale even though each person is different today than what they were yesterday.
  • We listen selectively to either confirm what we know (confirmation bias) or expect to hear (expectancy bias). We try to put things into neat boxes to keep our lives somewhat organized, but this doesn’t really work that well for people. For example, if I am driving behind a car that has a climate change bumper sticker and am passed by a truck with an NRA sticker, I will immediately tend to classify them and assume I will know what they are going to say and what type of person they will be. Of course, that kind of generalization is about a persona and not that specific person because I don’t know either one of them. By taking that stereotype into a conversation, I don’t approach it with openness, will avoid certain topics, and end up closing off entire areas of conversation and opportunities for understanding.
  • We want to avoid confrontation. Research and brain imaging have shown that the same areas that light up when we are being chased by a bear also light up when we are challenged by a viewpoint with which we vehemently disagree, even though it is not, like the bear, a potential existential threat.  As noted above, we assume we know what they will say, we have likely also stereotyped them based on that one belief. The flipside of this is  we may also seek to avoid confrontation with reality. For example, victims of cons often don’t listen very carefully (let alone interject to request more information) because the fiction they’re being sold is so appealing to them. I mean, who WOULDN’T want a guaranteed 68% annual return on a small upfront investment that you’ve never heard of?
  • We want to talk about ourselves instead. Narcissism is alive and well and frequently fueled by social media if the number of selfies that appear each day are any indication. We love to hear our own voice and we tend to be more comfortable talking about ourselves than listening to try to understand what’s really going on with the other person.

Tips on becoming a better listener

  • Make the other person the focus of the conversation, not you. If the other person isn’t interesting, it’s because you’re not interested in them to ask the right questions and that’s on you. By listening and engaging, you may find that you actually have some things in common, which automatically makes them more interesting (because if they’re like you, they MUST be awesome).
  • Listen to yourself. We all have self-talk and what is being said often depends on your experiences as a child (such as how much attachment and connection you had as noted above) and other experiences in life. When we are young, we may speak our thoughts out loud (ever watched a toddler wandering around and babbling to no one?) but then learn that’s not socially acceptable so we take it inside. Sometimes it pops out, though (I suspect I am not the only one who has shouted in my car about the, er, character and intelligence of a driver who just cut me off). That voice is also part of the arguing that you do in your head (think of the devil and angel on the shoulders of a cartoon character). If you listen to others, you will have gained more information, can argue more sides and angles of a matter in your own head and come up with more and better solutions. The more you listen to other people, the more you can inform your own internal voice and powers of reason and contemplation.
  • Be curious. In particular, ask questions to promote understanding. But rather than a barrage of questions that come across as an interrogation, ask questions that are open ended and design to elicit more information; those also often tease out more personal and emotional content. This requires a fair degree of vulnerability as we may not know where the conversation will go, but uncertainty is often when we feel the most alive. In addition to learning by being more curious, when you ask questions that you want to know the answer to, you’ll be more attentive to the response which will help you continue to be an active listener and reinforce to the speaker that you value what she’s saying.
  • Use support responses rather than shift responses. If I tell you that my cousin is coming to visit me for two weeks and I’m not sure what to do with her, you might respond with, “Oh, that’s rude. I had a friend who overstayed his visit and it was terrible. Did you tell her that you’re pretty busy with work?” Or, “Oh, that’s interesting. Did something significant happen that makes this unexpected for her?” The first is a shift response – it shifts the conversation back to the listener. The second is a support response – it asks the speaker more about her experience to obtain understanding. Using more shift responses prevents the conversation from going deeper because the person wasn’t allowed to finish his story or why it mattered to him. Shifts also tend to involve directions or advice on what to do, which further shuts down the conversation because most people don’t want to be told what to do. Rather, they want someone to just listen to them as they work things out in their mind.
  • Feel free to stop and clarify. When you are lost in the conversation (or perhaps zoned out with a distraction – it happens), it’s okay to ask the person to clarify. “I’m sorry, I think you lost me when you spoke about circadian rhythms. Can you elaborate on that?” This shows that you were listening and you’re interested but perhaps they didn’t have enough detail and they will be more than happy to go back and talk about what you asked.
  • It’s okay to pause. Rather than thinking of your response or follow-up question to what the individual is saying before they have even said it, just listen. Pausing for a second or two allows the information to sink in and for you to formulate a well-thought out response that acknowledges and respects what has shared. Pauses also allow the speaker to continue to add more detail as she reflects on what she’s said, too, which can deepen the conversation.
  • Listen for evidence you are wrong.  We only become secure in our convictions by allowing them to be challenged. You may still not believe the other person is right, but you may obtain a better understanding of the other position, potential weaknesses in your own position and how that informs your approach going forward. The more knowledge you have, the better and more innovation solutions you can develop. As Murphy noted in her book, “Listening is the engine of ingenuity. It’s difficult to understand desires and detect problems, much less develop elegant solutions, without listening.”
  • Put devices away during conversations. The very presence of a phone on a table, even if turned off, has been shown to make people feel more disconnected and less willing to share important or sensitive information because there is the lurking fear that you will stop listening as soon as something happens on that phone. The message we send when we look at other devices is that whatever is happening on the device is more important than the person right in front of us (whether virtually or figuratively). It may also be helpful to disable your notifications and to change your status on instant messaging to Not Available when you are on conference or video calls at work so that you can give them your full attention.
  • Consider which ear you are using. This is an odd one, but think about what you do when you need to know more information — which ear do you tend to put forward (or up, if you tip your head to the side as you listen)? Which ear do you automatically put the phone to? While there are some variations with those who are left-handed, listening with the left ear (right half of the brain) promotes understanding emotional content, whereas the right ear (left half of the brain) is better at receiving factual information.

I have just started on my learning journey on listening and have a long way to go in improving my own skills. I’m hopeful, though, that having a bit of background and, well, listening to the experts, will help us understand where we can improve so that we can learn and connect more with others. After all, when was the last time you thought, “If only she would listen less…?”

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