How to Become a Stupendously Good Listener in 6 Simple Steps

No longer merely a nice-to-have, becoming a really good listener is now imperative for the survival of the human race. 

Think I’m being ridiculously over-dramatic? Nope.

Illustrating the claim is some research done by American entrepreneur, Silicon Valley kid and blogger, Sam Altman.

Following the US election, Altman decided to talk to 100 Trump voters from around the country. Sam “wanted to understand what Trump voters liked and didn’t like about the President, what they were nervous about, what they thought about the left’s response so far, and most importantly, what would convince them not to vote for him in the future.”

And he compiled the responses into a blog post containing narratives

There’s nothing, and also everything, remarkable about what Sam did.

Sam went with a sincere intention to understand. So absent has this been from the discussions, so uncharacteristic, that the people he interviewed had trouble believing him. 

You can read all of the narratives in Sam’s blog article, but here’s what he identified as the TL;DR version (my bold):

“You all can defeat Trump next time, but not if you keep mocking us, refusing to listen to us, and cutting us out. It’s Republicans, not Democrats, who will take Trump down.”

Clearly, it’s time to stop mucking around and paying a bit more attention to eachother. So how?

we’ve lost the ability to listen

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Most people are inconsistent listeners at best, and awful at the worse.

Have you noticed?

Most people are attached to their mobile phones and would probably have a panic attack if it wasn’t in sight. Because of that, we are distracted and we have stupidly short attention spans.

Other listening shortcomings include being impatient, always interrupting, being non-empathetic/non-expressive, overly challenging, being defensive and out to prove what you have to say is more important.

Some other people are simply resistant to the sort of openness, intimacy and connection that great listening creates. 

underneath non-listening

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So why have we become so awful at this, most basic of skills?

There are many explanations for poor listening.

I think that smartphone use has fractured people’s attention spans a lot. Some of us simply never learned to be good listeners, or the importance of respecting views different to our own.

Deep down, listening to others is an act of generosity. And a lot of us allow negative life experiences to shut down our levels of generosity. Subconsciously, we hold the belief that it’s easier not to. 

Poor listening betrays arrogance, superiority and a lack of respect Click To Tweet

True, poor listening might be an awareness blind spot. But in a lot of cases, what poor listening betrays is intolerance and superiority. When you refuse to listen to someone, or a whole group, you are saying ‘what you have to say isn’t important’. You marginalize them.

And that creates oppression.

consequences of poor quality listening

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On a micro scale, not being a good listener probably just means you’ll be less popular with people, and less successful in your chosen pursuits.

What about on a macro level? Let’s look at what one of Sam’s respondents said (again, my bold):

“I’m a Jewish libertarian who’s [sic] grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Over the last few years the mainstream left has resorted to name-calling and character assassination, instead of debate, any time their positions are questioned. This atmosphere became extremely oppressive and threatening to people, like myself, who disagreed with many of Obama’s policies over the past several years. Intelligent debate has become rare.”

“It’s a lot like political discussion was in Soviet Union, actually. I think the inability to acknowledge obvious truths, and the ever-increasing scope of these restrictions makes it particularly frustrating. And personally, for whatever reason, I find inability to have more subtle discussion very frustrating–things are not white or black, but you can’t talk about greys since the politically correct answer is white.”

how to become a better listener in 6 easy steps 

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step 1: Appraise your listening skills honestly

Do you find that people want to share with you a lot? If not, what do you think stops them? Maybe ask your friends about it.  It could be because you are a bad listener.

step 2: If you could do with improving, set an intention to improve

Nothing to add here. 

step 3: Question what’s underneath your particular brand of shoddy listening

What you are telling yourself about what it means to show up fully with someone else and give them your time? Look at your levels of generosity in other life areas; your self importance, and levels of respect for others. If your issue is simply one of awareness, then you may find your listening taking a sharp upwards trajectory the moment you notice useless and unhelpful beliefs. 

step 4: Show that you’re listening

I have this very smart friend who does listen, but because of her tendency to cut in with the solution/an opinion, it can seem that she isn’t listening. I’ve noticed this a lot with very smart people.

Annoying that this matters, but it does. It is not only what we do that counts, but what we are seen to do.

So: behave. Make sure you aren’t interrupting (even if what you have to say is super enlightening), maintain eye contact, and provide some kind of feedback to the speaker.

step 5: Use this nifty visualisation technique

When engaged in conversation, start to notice exactly where your attention is resting.

When we listen, our focus of attention is in either one of three places:

  • with the other person – on the content of what they say, their expression;
  • in the space between you; or
  • with you (you’re engrossed in your commentary on what is being said, and you’re planning your response).

Ideally, your attention should be with the other person. When there is more than two people, it is okay for your attention to rest in the space. 

step 6: Catch yourself in the act of poor listening

Notice when you are listening to respond (rather than listening to hear).

Listening to respond is often more immediately satisfying to be honest. Someone has barely opened their mouth to speak and we’re chomping to chime in with a more enlightened take on the matter.

Listening to respond is admittedly more gratifying in the short term. But we must resist Click To Tweet

But listening to hear is ultimately more gratifying. You’re creating a mini compassion clearing each time some words are exchanged.

Notice also when you are committing any of the following listening crimes:

  • listening to confirm what you want to think;
  • listening to challenge; and
  • listening ‘on the defensive’ – i.e. with the intention to get upset.

What each of these do is they distort the message being delivered to you.

summary

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Teaching yourself how to become a good listener isn’t a petty exercise in moralism – nor is it about ‘being a nicer person’. Guess what really good listeners become? Wise, smart, socially intelligent, and successful. They develop a literacy for the nuances that life constantly offers us. 

Learning to listening well is also one of the most radical actions you can take. Because almost nobody does it. We aren’t respecting our attention, and consequently that affects the quality of the attention we are capable of giving. 

So be radical.