Updated: Jun 5, 2022
When I think of communication I think of mouths opening and closing and words coming out, while I think about something else. When I think about really good communication I swoon in mild jealousy at the fluidity and energy of those that speak with charisma; their ability to find sparkling images, articulate words, and to carry me along.
Of course, the skill that people who know about communication keep going on about is listening, but listening's one of those things that it's fashionable to pretend you think is important, but nobody really does, right (like breathing, and work/life balance)? Worse still, it seems like people who listen with exceptional attentiveness are a bit smug, and slightly manipulative: letting others speak, and gathering information while giving nothing back.
Then one day I became a coach, and I had this kind of revelation that when people try to promote listening, they're not speaking about the same thing as I'm imagining. Listening for them it doesn't seem to be just keeping quiet and letting other people speak, but something a bit more complex, and far more rewarding.
Some obvious benefits
For the manipulative there are some powerful and obvious benefits to quality listening (this is of course an attempt at humour; any kind of ulterior motive to listening reduces its function). But it's hard to separate the impact of powerful listening from the visible relief people get when they feel heard, and often, the sensation of liking and trusting the person that's listening to them. What's more, it's an amazing source of learning for both the listener and the person being listened to: horizons expand way beyond our own narrow limits, we are carried into other worlds, and we remember this stuff surprisingly well. But the greatest quality of all is to do with making connection, and when you learn to be a habitually good listener then this becomes fluid, messages exchange with ease and impact, problems seem to arise less, conflicts dissipate before they get going, people seem to be more content, they smile more often, and act with greater confidence when expressing difficult ideas, and exploring challenges. In short, life just gets better.*
Big claims, huh? Try the following and tell me you don't agree.
How to be really good at listening
Here are some pointers for great listening, but before you read on, take a minute to consider these two questions: What do you know already about listening? What techniques or strategies do you use already that work well?
Put down your phone, put everything down, stop fidgeting and turn your whole body towards the person you're listening to. Look at them. You know this, right?
Slow your breathing down and allow your attention to do what your body is doing, that is, turning entirely towards the other.
Now listen not just to the words. Observe the body of the person. Observe their voice. You might choose to reflect back with similar (but not mocking) body language or breathing.
Check-in sometimes on what the other person means, perhaps by repeating an occasional word they have used, or underlining an image or metaphor they brought up, or, just now and then, reformulating their words and saying them back.
Avoid planning what you are going to say next.
The Hard Stuff
Be curious. If you think you already know what's going on with the other person, you're not listening, and if you think you know better, you're involved in some other kind of activity.
Listen without judgement. There is great value in understanding and discerning what you agree with and what you don't agree with. But to become an expert listener I suggest you to put that on hold. Accept that fitting what the person is saying into your own framework of understanding is not of central importance here, and your judgement creates a barrier to people speaking openly whether you are trying to be a good listener, or at any time of day. Instead try to listen beyond the limits of your already though-out ideas of "what is" and "what is not", because this really opens up the possibility of hearing things you had never considered.
Many disciplines put listening into hierarchical categories, for instance: lower level listening might be listening to words and letting your mind wander. For spiritual disciplines, a higher level might be listening to somebody's whole, or energy, for the less spiritual that might translate into looking at the speaker's broader context and whether the person seems happy and relaxed or not. Theory U puts listening onto four levels and I found this really useful. The first level is called "downloading" - they define this as listening in order to reinforce what you already know. We all do it of course and there are situations every day where this is useful, but when you want to get into skilled communication, turn it off. Their next level is called "Factual Listening" - I can't overstate the value of this. Putting all preconceived notions of meaning to one side and observing the facts without interpretation can end wars - it takes dedicated practice to remember to do it. The third level is called "empathy". I actually have a problem with the concept of empathy as I believe it is a form of projection - I suspect that we don't ever walk a mile in another's shoes but simply imagine doing so and thus turn ourselves off from the listening process. After a lot of discussion with highly skilled listeners, I settled on the idea of "compassion" being the quality that I would like to allocate to my understanding of this third level (people use various different words and don't always agree on the definition here, so the important thing is not the word but what is actually happening); the person speaking is a human with emotional needs, hopes, joys, and pains. I suggest not trying to imagine what it would be like for you in their situation but to watch and respect that this person may be experiencing it in a different way than you could imagine. The final level of listening in Theory U is called "Generative Listening". This is a little harder to define but in short, it means listening in order to provide an opening for the speaker to generate ideas that had not existed before they spoke. For my theory U training, I downloaded an app to make a daily record of my perception of my listening. It was an amazing experience.
This may get me into trouble with the listening police. My last best idea to make amazing listening is to share (and that means to speak) and consciously work to redistribute the power in any conversation equally. Say things, reflect what the other person has said, but also bring something of yourself, a story (keep it short, short, short), an image, or an idea, a vulnerability... It takes courage to abandon a position of security that silence can afford. But people become even more open and more empowered when they make contact on an adult-to-adult and equal level. If one person is doing all the listening, there is quite simply not equality. So speak as well, as though the other person might wish to hear you, as you wish to hear them. But not too much, if you want to communicate like a champion, keep a broad, and secure space for the other, do it often and learn it like second nature, then watch the benefits flow in.
A few final questions:
What else would you include in your own listening master class?
If you already know these things, are there times when you systematically fail to apply them? When are you rubbish at listening and how could you make yourself better?
*Please note: when I'm not working as a coach, I'm not that good at listening. But I'm picking up ideas from my coaching practice that are really useful and I'm getting better and better at applying them in everyday life.