A short guide to listening
The tenth newsletter is about skills
Why would anybody need a guide to listen better? Aren’t we born with the ability to listen?
Nope. We’re not.
We are born with the ability to hear sound, but listening is a skill we develop later on, if at all.
In our daily lives, we don’t feel like this is true though. Walking out the door everyday, we believe that we’re listening to everyone around us. We have conversations and chats all day. We listen to our family members, our friends, our colleagues. Right?!
Nope. We don’t.
What we’re listening to, normally, is our internal chatter. The conversation that’s going on inside our minds. There’s an almost imperceptible program running in our heads. Looping and looping around. Thoughts, beliefs, stories, falling over each other like ocean waves. All day.
And they inhibit true listening more often than not.
And even if we do try to listen, we usually have an agenda. We want to share our story, we need people to hear what our answer is, or we want to present our solution to their problem.
The result is a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding between us. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when you look around you. We’re not exactly all getting along because we’re listening so intently to one another.
So what to do?
The good news
Listening is a skill. This means we can get better at it and move beyond just hearing. This is good news. For us and everybody around us.
Ultimately, a mindful attitude is necessary to truly listen to another person. We need to be aware of our own thoughts, to be able to put them aside for a minute. In that sense you could say that listening is focusing your attention on another mind instead of your own.
Before we start
Check yourself before going into a conversation. Take a conscious breath. Okay, maybe one more.
Take a step back and observe your thoughts. Your 4pm appointment, that thing you don’t want to forget, remnants of a grocery list, all floating around in there.
Notice them and put them aside for now. Not pushing them away but gently pushing the pause button, you’ll return to them later. Right now you're going to focus on someone else's mind.
When your thoughts have softened a little bit into the background, now you can focus on this person in front of you. Remember the following: They don't need your advice or suggestions. They don’t need you to fix their problem for them. Even if you know something they don’t. Even if you're very smart. Even if they ask for it. They just need you to listen to them when they talk to themselves.
“After all, when you seek advice from someone it's certainly not because you want them to give it. You just want them to be there while you talk to yourself.” ― Terry Pratchett (Jingo)
A three-step framework for listening to someone
So what is the minimum viable product? What are the core listening skills that everybody needs? Boiling it down to the bare-bones components, I came up with these three.
Silence is awkward. But it is a superpower. If you start practicing extending your silences you’ll get better at tolerating the former awkwardness. When you stop filling the silences out of awkwardness, you’re inviting your conversation partner to talk. Simply by making room for it. Silence is golden.
Silence is inviting the other person to keep talking. Of course, you don’t have to be deadpan about it, you can signal with your body language and the look on your face that you’re inviting/expecting them to continue.
Even small utterances like ‘uhm, and ahh’ help. This isn’t strictly silence, but it isn’t strictly talking either.
You can practice this in every conversation you have from now on and treat it like ‘exposure therapy’—one small increment at a time. Don’t go cold turkey and in-person-ghost people please.
Unexpected maybe, but listening is not all about listening. You can speak. Being silent for most of the time does help though. When you do occasionally want to break your silence, a good starting point is to repeat what you’ve heard your conversation partner say. This is called: reflection.
Reflecting back to people what you’ve just heard them say (even literally, although this may sound a bit robotic) can be amazingly helpful. Be a mirror for them to see themselves in.
This makes people feel heard. It’s wonderful to feel understood when you’ve been speaking, and it’s very rare. Very often the ‘listening party’ is responding with some idea of their own. Something they’ve been ruminating on, a story they know about the subject.
Maybe you’ve heard of ‘active listening’. With active listening, instead of just hearing your conversation partner’s words (or even sounds if you’ve seriously dozed off), you make an effort to understand what they mean. By listening to what is said, and to what is not said. Reading between the lines so to speak, reaching further than just their words. What is conveyed through body language? What does your intuition tell you? What do they mean?
Take a reasonable guess what they might mean and reflect it back to them.
Two things to remember when you provide a reflection:
It’s a statement, not a question. Saying: ‘You’re not concerned about it’ is a statement. Put a question mark behind it and the tone drastically changes: ‘You’re not concerned about it?’ Quite a difference. Who wouldn’t be defensive?
The statement is unconditional. You don’t care about being right. They can literally take it or leave it and that’s fine with you. If you radiate that, they’ll feel it.
Sprinkle some questions in between your reflections. Sounding like a parrot won’t help anybody. You can ask questions.
Asking questions is a great way to show interest and help someone explore their mind a bit deeper. And you can use your natural curiosity for this. Make sure to channel your curiosity on their behalf. Make it serving instead of selfish. Ask them something that is helpful for them to discover or explore.
Start your question with the words ‘what’ or ‘how’. A question starting with ‘why’ can sound defensive and it’s also difficult to answer. Why things are the way they are is often not so easy or helpful to go into.
Keep your questions short. Don’t ramble on if at all possible. Try not to ask multiple questions in one go.
This might not be evident but when you ask someone a question, it’s very important to listen to their answer and be silent (for details on this, go back to step 1).
Bonus: ask the question: ‘what do you mean by…(insert an interesting word they just said)?’ This is a surefire way to invite your conversation partner to explore their thinking deeper. I almost consider this a cheat code for better listening.
Keep these at hand
Cultivating a mindful, present state takes longer than a couple of minutes of conversation (if not a lifetime), but these tools will get you rolling. Use them liberally. Next time you find yourself in a conversation, before relapsing into your old habits of steamrolling, rambling, or one-upping, keep these three at hand: Shut up, Reflect, Ask.
I love the way you’ve skilfully - and artfully - summarised the year’s of coach training we did about how to listen into three steps. This should be essential reading for all coaches at the start of a programme!
In my own practice, just as Nonviolent Communication teaches us words can be violent, I’ve found silence can be a weapon, too. Precisely because those who are not accustomed to silences, even short ones (which is most of us), it’s a great tool when making a complaint. I used to lose my temper, raise my voice when something didn’t go my way. Usually an anonymous someone at the end of telephone line receiving a complaint about a service or product. Now, silence is my mode of complaining. It’s gentle (perhaps apart from the awkwardness it generates in the person listening/waiting), but I’ve noticed often that their filling the silence with talking leads to the solution.
Excellent tips, Rik. Love the Terry Pratchett quote. Just create a space for the other person to talk to themselves. Golden.