Connecting More in Relationships: How to Listen and Learn

Being a good listener is an underrated skill. But it can do wonders for our relationships, our working life and our daily interactions with others.

Have you ever experienced the frustration and let down of sharing something important with someone only to feel that they aren’t really listening? Or regretted that you didn’t take the time to listen to someone else? Poor listening can cause all sorts of problems and misunderstandings in our relations with others – whether it’s our partners, kids, family, friends, work colleagues, even people we’ve only just met. We can all think of people who don’t listen: the social butterfly who flutters around you while looking over your shoulder for someone more interesting to talk to; the work colleague who manages to turn every conversation back to herself; the friend who’s always trying to fix your life when all you want is a listening ear; and the partner who always gets distracted whenever you bring up something that matters to you. But while it’s easy to spot poor listening in others, how many of us can put our hands on our heart and say that we’re good listeners? Most of us believe we’re better than other people we know. But the truth is many of us find it easier to talk than listen – and even when we are listening, we often don’t do it that well.

A way to connect
The first thing to realize is that hearing and listening aren’t the same thing. Most of us have experienced the frustration of talking to someone when the lights are on, but nobody’s there? In fact we’ve probably been guilty of it ourselves. Listening is an active process and requires our full attention. But even then it can be hard to listen with an open mind and refrain from butting in with our own opinions and funny stories – particularly if we hold different views or are seeking attention ourselves. But being a good listener is vital in building those give-and-take relationships that give life meaning and help us feel connected to others. Knowing how to listen builds intimacy and trust with the people who are important to us, and brings us to a higher level of understanding in our day-to-day relations with others. It helps those with whom we come into contact with feel worthy, appreciated, interesting and respected. What’s more, it increases the chances that they’ll reciprocate and listen to us too.

Why it’s harder than we think
However, being a good listener may be harder than we think according to an article in the Harvard Business Review. The article, Listening to People, cites studies showing that even when we think we are listening, on average we receive and understand less than half of what’s said to us. One reason for this is that we think much faster than we talk – which leaves plenty of time for our mind to wander when someone else is speaking. Each time we go off down one of our own mental sidetracks, we miss something of what the other person is saying. And the more we miss, the more we lose track, making it even harder to concentrate on what we’re being told.

What makes a good listener?
But herein lies the key say the authors. It’s how well we use this ‘spare thinking time’ that decides whether we are a good or bad listener. Good listening is not just about listening to the words, it’s about trying to find meaning. The more we use our thinking time to grasp the ideas or meaning behind what the other person is saying, the more information we take in – and the greater our understanding. From understanding comes empathy, which then allows us to respond in a more helpful way. So for example, a good listener will ‘listen between the lines’. In other words they pay attention to non-verbal clues such as the person’s tone of voice or body language, as well as the words they’re speaking, to give a better understanding of what they’re being told. Listening well is also about noticing what’s gone unsaid – which in itself can speak volumes. But good listening is also about giving off the right signals yourself, in terms of your body language and prompts and encouragement that show the person that you’re interested and attentive. It’s about reflecting back and clarifying anything you’re unsure about to make sure you’ve understood. And it’s about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, so you can see their point of view.

Blocks to listening
When our true intention is to listen and understand what someone else is saying, rather than having some hidden agenda, good listening comes more easily. But the trouble is that there are other things that can get in our way. It may just be that we’re too distracted with our own worries or feel we don’t have time to listen – or simply that we’re bored or not very interested in the topic being talked about. But there can also be emotional and psychological blocks to listening that we’re not even aware of. For example, we may choose to filter out what we don’t want to hear, particularly if it goes against our deeply held beliefs and values. Or we can be so busy rehearsing our own response that we forget to listen. Or perhaps we’re one of life’s fixers – always keen to jump in with ‘helpful’ advice, but less keen to take the time to listen. In the same way, our ability to listen may be affected by our mood or our feelings about ourselves. We may jump to conclusions based on our negative interpretation of what the person is telling us rather than what they are actually saying. Or we may react badly to ‘red flag’ words or expressions that hold particular associations for us, which distracts us from whatever else the person is saying. Conversely, if it’s something we especially want to hear – particularly if it confirms our deepest feelings and beliefs – we’re more likely to open our ears and accept it without criticism, regardless of whether or not it’s true.

Common listening blocks

  • Mindreading – you jump to conclusions based on your own interpretation of what the other person is saying rather than what they are really telling you.
  • Rehearsing – you’re too busy rehearsing your head what you want to say to really listen.
  • Filtering – you only hear what you want to hear, or stop listening if it doesn’t seem important or doesn’t demand anything of you.
  • Judging – you’re quick to judge, and slow to listen.
  • Daydreaming – your attention wanders more than most, but particularly in established relationships when it’s easy to stop listening.
  • Avoiding – not listening is a way of avoiding what you don’t want to hear.
  • Fixing – your compulsion to jump in with advice or solutions makes you deaf to the person’s simple need to be heard.
  • Taking issue – whatever the topic, you see it as a contest, one that you must win. You take a position and defend it without stopping to listen to other person’s viewpoint.
  • Being right – you won’t hear anything that suggests you are less than perfect, and feeling so easily criticized stops you from listening to the other person’s concerns Derailing – you change the subject or turn it into a joke every time the conversation becomes too personal or threatening.
  • Placating – You’re so eager to please that you agree with the other person without stopping to hear them out.

Changing the focus
One way to take back control is to make a big effort to reserve judgement until the other person has stopped speaking. This is easier if you put your energy and attention into trying to understand what the person is saying and why they’re saying it. It’s also worth balancing your natural inclination to search for information that proves you right, by also seeking out ideas that might prove you wrong. That way you’re more likely to listen to the other person’s point of view. Few of us are born good listeners. But with a little effort and understanding we can all learn good listening skills. It won’t transform your relationships and your life overnight, but you may be surprised at the improvements it brings.
How many of these listening blocks do you recognize? What could you do to be a better listener? Who would you like to listen to you?

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