Both in and outside my work, I do a lot of listening to people. This is no accident—it’s actually one of my favorite things to do. Because of my fascination with the subject, I’ve decided to write a few posts on learning to enjoy listening, and overcoming some of the barriers we often face to fully bringing our minds and hearts to hearing someone out.
Listening, on the surface, seems like an easy thing to do. After all, in theory, all you’re doing is sitting in silence and paying attention. In fact, I suspect that for all of us, from time to time, hearing someone with authentic compassion and with our full attention can be challenging. In this post, I’ll talk about a few of the blocks that tend to get in our way, and some ideas for moving beyond them.
1. A Need To “Deliver Value.” One reason many of us have trouble just sitting back and listening to someone is that we worry that our mere presence and desire to hear what they’re saying “aren’t enough.” That is, we’re afraid we aren’t contributing enough to them by just hearing them out—we need to say something insightful or valuable.
If we don’t “make a contribution” in this way, we assume, the other person will think there’s something wrong with us. Maybe they’ll decide we aren’t special enough, we’re stupid or unimaginative, we lack “social skills,” or something else. And they’ll decide they don’t want to talk to us and leave.
The irony is that, when we try to “deliver value” this way, even though we’re sincerely trying to help, our efforts often backfire. You’ve probably seen this for yourself—think of a time when you were explaining a problem you were having to someone else, they started telling you what you “should” do, and you felt patronized and annoyed.
I’ve heard some people suggest (a la Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus) that men and women see this issue differently, and this creates a communication barrier between the sexes. Men supposedly tend to give and expect advice, while women prefer to listen and be heard. But I haven’t found this to be true—in my experience, men (myself included) seem just as likely to bristle at unsolicited advice.
I think genuine listening and compassion require some self-trust. We need to trust that it’s “enough” for us to simply let go, sit back and hear the other person. Developing that, in my experience, makes interacting easier and more fun, and has the other person feel the sincerity of our listening. In short, whether we feel like we’re “delivering value” depends more on how we feel about ourselves than anything we say or do in the conversation.
2. Judgment. Another common barrier to listening with our full attention is our tendency to mentally evaluate and judge what other people say. Perhaps we don’t like the way they’re handling some aspect of their life, we think they should stop complaining, we don’t like how they’re looking at us, or something else.
Another common judgment can arise if the person we’re speaking with keeps talking for a long time about their situation and concerns. Some of us start feeling disrespected or neglected. “What about my feelings?” we start wondering.
Some of us, instead of judging the other person, start attacking ourselves. Perhaps, in our minds, we’re unfavorably comparing ourselves to the other person. For instance, we might be thinking “this person is doing better than me. Look at all the success they’re having.” Or maybe our attention keeps drifting back to some unresolved issue in our lives—“oh, no, what if the bonus at work is too small this year?”
However we may judge the other person or ourselves, some of our attention gets occupied with the act of judging and criticizing, and diverted from what the other person is saying. Our compassion for them shuts down, and the conversation becomes an exercise in tolerating rather than enjoying them. Although we might not say what we’re thinking out loud, others can feel this change in our attitude.
I think a key step in letting go of our judgments, and listening with our full minds and hearts, is to simply notice the judgments are there. By this, I mean just observing the running mental monologue that may be going on while you’re in a conversation with someone, and what it’s saying. In my experience, our mind activity tends to quiet when we focus our awareness on it, allowing us to gently return our attention to the conversation.
3. A Need To Look Like We Care. Some of us, when we’re listening to someone, start worrying about the image we’re projecting. We get anxious that the other person might doubt that we’re really listening, or assume we don’t care about what they’re telling us, because of some aspect of our body language or verbal responses.
To relieve our fear, we consciously start smiling, nodding, saying “mm hmm,” and adopting all the other mannerisms we think a genuinely caring person would have. Or perhaps we try some more sophisticated NLP-type thing like “matching and mirroring” their movements. Maybe we’ve even read a book or blog post on the “Top 10 Ways To Build Rapport,” and use the conversation to test-drive those techniques.
The irony here is that, when our attention is on whether we look like we’re listening, it’s no longer on actually listening. And when we’re wrapped up in the image we’re presenting, we aren’t genuinely caring about the other person’s wants and needs—we’re concerned with managing how they see us. Human beings are much more empathic than we usually give each other credit for being, and my sense is that people can detect this kind of pretense.
As with the feeling that we need to “deliver value,” which I talked about before, getting over this compulsion to look like we’re listening requires us to trust ourselves—to trust that, if we’re genuinely concerned for someone’s wellbeing, we don’t need to make any special effort to get them to believe it. Instead, we can relax our minds and bodies, and just absorb what’s going on in front of us.
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic
The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests