Everyone assumes they are a good listener. Of course, you might think, I’m always happy to listen! But it’s not that easy — it’s not as easy as wanting to be good, or being ‘happy’ to sit by. Even your closest friends and family, who may love you to bits, can still be bad listeners. Listening takes practice, and self-awareness. It’s no wonder it’s not as easy as it looks.
How do we get listening so wrong?
- Nobody teaches us how. Like so many other really important but assumed skills in this life, there’s no high school module on listening (well, there wasn’t at my school!). Nobody really sits us down and says ‘this is how you listen properly’. It’s assumed we will just figure it out.
- It’s always talked about as though it’s passive, when it isn’t. The idea that you can always be listening while your mind is on a thousand other things, because all you have to do is reman upright and keep your eyes open, is a very dangerous and unhelpful way to think about listening as a skill. It’s not passive — just being in the room vaguely facing the correct direction won’t cut it!
Does any of this sound familiar…? Worry not, it’s common. I am not sure I’ve always been the most dedicated listener myself, but I’m in a relationship with someone whose entire job is to listen to others and their worries, so I’ve been paying a lot more attention to just what it is that he does that makes his version of listening so successful.
A quick note about ‘active listening’…
Ideas about ‘active listening’ can be a useful starting point, but I think the problem here is that people are often using an active listening checklist — nod once every two minutes, prepare follow up questions, wait politely for sound to stop emanating from the other person’s mouth, demand your mind focuses, etc. While these can be a good means to an end, it is a performance of what ‘good listening’ looks like. For this reason I prefer the concept of Mindful Listening. Jon Kabat-Zinn said in his infamous book, ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are’, that mindfulness means…
Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
Rather goes for listening, too. Here are just a few observations of how we can make this a reality:
Practice becoming more present
A fairly central tenant of mindfulness, giving yourself the time and space to focus in is vital. This means practicing sitting quietly, taking note of how thoughts and feelings appear in the mind, and recognising our own inner chatter as part of life. Awareness is the key — by becoming more aware of how and when the thoughts/feelings surface, the more aware we will be of when we are getting distracted from the task at hand. This includes when you’re meant to be listening to someone who is speaking to you. I can’t stress the value of meditation enough as the ‘way in’ to this concept.
Here’s What Will Happen if you Meditate for 50 Days
Or ‘An Experiment in Meditation: 50 Days and Counting…’
Interrupting to clarify is okay, but interrupting to change the subject is a bad idea
Ok, potentially obvious, but there’s good and bad types of interrupting. If you’re saying something like, “Hey, sorry to interrupt, but did you mean…?” with the purpose of clarifying something that’s been said, that is fine. But just straight up cutting someone off to mention something entirely unrelated gets pretty annoying. So does clarifying every second word — if you’re really not getting the person, chances are that it might help to just let them finish before you bombard with follow up. Being interested enough to understand is good, of course, but it takes delicacy to interrupt in a non-shitty-listener kind of way.
Another thing I’ve noticed is when someone I’m talking to interrupts with what they think will be a cute and mutually appreciated anecdote. The intention is not a bad one, but the very act of interrupting to make the situation about you and your cute anecdote doesn’t really sit much better with me. I still feel like my thread has been cut halfway, and you’re doing your best to insert what you wanted to say all along into the chat.
Slow down: there’s no rush to prove you care
Often we interrupt or start jiggling with the need to talk because we’re super keen to prove we’re in listening-caring-understanding mode. This means we do stop listening to the rest of what a person is trying to say, waiting for our chance to talk and show we’re listening. Funny that.
The planning going on in your head of what you’re going to say in response is taking up the space your brain needs to focus on listening. So no more planning, just listen.
Ask appropriate questions
Asking good questions is a very clear demonstration of listening and interest in what has been discussed. But the ‘appropriate’ is important here. A lot of listening advice will tell you that even rephrasing something someone has said as a question (e.g. “So you’re saying x, y, z?”) can show good listening. But even better would be to actually engage with what the person has said and delve deeper, if appropriate. Context is everything — if someone’s just having a rant, that’s also fine, and maybe your role is not to demand answers to a hundred and one follow up questions in that scenario, but rather to listen and acknowledge the person’s frustration. It’s fine to clarify this, if need be (i.e. “Do you want my advice on this, or would you like me just to listen?”). Appropriate questions are the key.
Perform some appropriate body language in a meaningful way
This is an interesting one, because I firmly believe that just saying “ah huh” a lot can become a kind of auto-pilot action, even though it is very important to demonstrate that you have heard, and are responsive to what is being said. The problem here, I think, is that a lot of people realise that nodding or “ah huh”-ing are signs of listening, so they just perform them, while their eyes glaze over and they’re thinking about what to have for dessert later. Just doing the ‘listening actions’ isn’t really good listening.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a pause to really consider what has been said before doing or saying anything — before even nodding. In an extreme case of bad listener, I know someone who began whistling over the person to whom they’d just asked a question. Now, I think this is pretty obvious. But if you’re really not aware of what you’ve just done (think back: what were the last five actions you performed?) or if you’re someone who immediately has trouble recalling what it was that you just discussed with someone, it’s time to take a step back. Go back to mindfulness, to being more present, and practice.
Oh, and it should go without saying but, for god’s sake, put down your phone. If you are hardly ever making eye contact, hardly ever acknowledging what has been said, then you definitely aren’t listening. We’re just not as good at multitasking as we like to think we are.
Set up some positive intentions
Most of us don’t mean to be bad listeners. We mean to be good, supportive listeners. But we need to remember one key thing:
When listening, you don’t have to do anything else. You just have to listen; be in this moment with the other person, and that’s it.
Setting up a good intention for yourself is helpful — one that replaces the earnest urgency to follow up, acknowledge and respond, instead of just being with the person.
While many of us don’t mean to be bad listeners, some people never quite manage a way out of the bad listening habits. Sometimes this starts to drain a relationship. Sometimes, it can get toxic.
How To Spot Toxic People (And Find New Awesome People Instead)
The insidious traits of toxicity and ways to deal with them
But if you’re faced with someone who you’re not quite sure is ever listening to you, it’s worth starting by gently pointing this out before you write them off, by asking a question like, “Is there something going on? You seem distracted.” Or, “Are you sure you want to listen right now?” Recognising that you are not feeling listened to, and offering the other person the option to explain or respond, is a good way to figure out whether they are just having a hard time (and you’re asking them to listen in a bad moment, so the timing is just out of sync) or whether they just aren’t really sure how to listen well. It can be a great opportunity for both of you to clarify your needs and expectations of the way you communicate together.
We all want to be heard, after all. So taking the time to listen, to think things through and talk them through, gets us all what we need, in the end.