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Listening

“Listening well is often silent but never passive.”Michael P. Nichols

You want to read something funny?  Two years ago, if you had asked me, I would have told you that I’m an excellent listener (despite my wife’s claims to the contrary).  Now (based largely on her persuasion), after finally opening up to the idea that, hey – you know what? I might be able to be a better listener… Guess what I’ve realized?  I’m not even a good listener! At all. I’m far better at the craft than I was two years ago (back when, you know, I thought I was excellent), but still very much a work in progress!

So how can I, a man that admittedly sucks at listening, help you become a better listener?  And why should you care? Because we, as a culture, don’t do a good job of listening. That stinks, because every one of us inherently needs people (or at the very least A PERSON) who care and are willing to listen without judgement.  On the other hand, the fact that our culture is permeated by a lack of good listeners is great news… It means that the bar is really, really low to become a pretty fair listener in our own right! If, like me, you desire to make strides in this area, here are 5 thoughts to consider.

Be Mindful:

“The essence of good listening is empathy, which can be achieved only by suspending our preoccupation with ourselves and entering into the experience of the other person.  Part intuition and part effort, it’s the stuff of human connection.”Michael P. Nichols

We’ve all heard the age old saying: 

“You’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason (listen more than you talk).”  

But the fact is, it’s easier to talk than it is to listen.   That’s because we all view the world through our own unique lens.  My lens is different than yours, and your lens is different than your co-worker.  It’s easier to live in our worldview and express it than it is to open up to the idea that other people view the same world – the same acts, the same images, the same messages – in completely different ways, based largely on their unique beliefs and past experiences.  Mindfulness in this regard is the acceptance of the idea that misinterpretation is essentially unavoidable unless and until we take the time and make the effort to understand – at least to a small degree – where the other person is coming from.

“The reason we long so much to be listened to is that we never outgrow the need to communicate what it’s like to live in our separate, private worlds of experience.  Unfortunately, there is no parallel need to listen. Maybe that’s why listening sometimes seems in short supply. Listening isn’t a need we have; it’s a gift we give.”Michael P. Nichols

Why is listening important?  Like you, I assume, the vast majority of my conversations are transactional – “I need this from you, and I’m willing to provide that in return.”  When someone that we care about is in need, however, their needs often outweigh anything they can provide in turn. In those instances, conversation must take a deeper tone; we have to be able (and willing) to transcend that transactional level of thinking.  This actually became apparent to me in a group setting recently. There is one particular member of my mastermind that is simply an incredible listener – he’s literally the best listener that I know. The feedback that he presents when I speak, and the insightful questions that he asks me in return are incredible (note: he’s not jumping to conclusions here; he’s ASKING me deeper questions about my situation).  Whenever we talk, I leave feeling heard, appreciated, and cared for. It’s a gift he has, and simply being around it makes me want to provide similar feelings of empathy for others in my life.

“The problem of listening, like all human problems, is circular: inadequate appreciation makes us insecure in ourselves and less open to others.  The listening we don’t get is the listening we don’t pass on.”Michael P. Nichols

Our natural tendency is to try to change people; to make them more like us.  I know this is true for me. I’ve developed my worldview based upon my own personal truth.  And my default setting is to simply impart that worldview on others: “Don’t you see? This is how it works?!?!”  In truth, what I’m saying is, “This is how (I think) it works (for me)” which may or may not have any bearing on anyone else!  Furthermore, most people are just as entrenched in the world as it appears through their own lens as I am in mine, and you are in yours.  It’s what we know – and our limited perspective impairs impartiality and objectiveness.  

How can we know what we don’t know?  We can’t, but what we can do is simply accept that there is more that we don’t know than we ever will.  It’s rare that we can change the people around us. In truth, it’s not often beneficial for them to change (even when we think it is).  The people that we love often come to us not for answers, but for empathy. And providing that empathy requires the suspension of our own experience.

“To be with other people authentically – that is, to respond to them as they are, not as what we want them to be – is no easy feat.”Michael P. Nichols

“Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire, and judgement – and, for a few moments at least, existing for the other person.”Michael P. Nichols

So how can you (or I) become a better listener?  Before you can be a great listener, you have to be comfortable in your own skin.  You have to be content in who you are (and why) – not necessarily to impart your own experiences or advice upon the person with whom you’re connecting, but simply to thoroughly let go of your own preoccupations and agenda and allow yourself to see the world through a bit of their lens.  For me, taking strides in this direction means doing the internal work. Meditation has helped me tremendously as I work to grow in this area. The tool that I’ve been using and really enjoy is a guided meditation app called 10% Happier.

“Listening better to those you’re closest to is easier when you remember that we are separate selves.  Openness and autonomy are correlated. If you are to have the courage to be yourself, to stand squarely on your own two feet, then you must accept that other people are entitled to their own point of view.”Michael P. Nichols

Suppress the need to impress or outdo:

We’ve all been there.  Someone begins telling a story detailing their situation, from their perspective.  We have a similar experience, or more accurately, something in their story triggers the memory of an experience that we think is relatable; so we immediately interrupt their story by sharing our own.  We typically do this with the best of intentions; we’re not purposely derailing their tale or belittling their needs – we genuinely want to share our experience in the hopes that our friend can take some morsel of advice from our separate but similar situation.  This isn’t listening, and it’s often not what our friend needs. We didn’t care enough to listen to their experience and their interpretation of it (which is inevitably layered and different than our own).

“Effective listening is more than simply avoiding the bad habit of interrupting others while they are speaking or finishing their sentences.  It’s being content to listen to the entire thought of someone rather than waiting impatiently for your chance to respond.”Richard Carlson

A helpful tool to keep in mind to avoid dominating the conversation and truly begin to listen and express empathy is to ask questions.  When our instinct is inevitably to interject and share our own story, instead take the opportunity to repeat, in your own words, what you’re hearing…  “So, what you’re saying is…” “This made you feel…” and then follow that up with a question that encourages the speaker to go farther, or deeper, or simply continue.

“Practice letting others finish talking, and then let them know what you think they’re saying before you say what’s on your mind.” Michael P. Nichols

Avoid the urge (it’s an urge that we all have – I fall victim to this all the time) to one-up your speaker with your own story.  This is summed up incredibly well in this quote from Nick Szabo, the inventor of smart contracts and Bit Gold, which ultimately laid the foundation for the creation of Bitcoin:

“I’ve gotten better at telling my brain ‘no’ when it wants to relate to conversation with a ‘bigger’ story.  What I mean is, somebody might be telling me a story about an experience they had, while I have a related story that sounds even bigger and more dramatic than theirs.  Rather than wait for a moment to jump in with mine, I’ll just let that desire go and ask them more questions about their experience. What I’ve discovered is incredible: the loss of the opportunity to possibly impress someone is far outweighed by what I learn when I ask more questions.  There is always something else to their story that will amaze you. Don’t expect that what they start with is as exciting as it will get. Ask and encourage them to say more.”Nick Szabo

Listening does not mean advising:

It’s been a long time since I read the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus but I remember this being my main take away from it.  Men are often hard-wired to seek solutions. We want to solve problems.  Women, on the other hand, tend to seek more often to be heard and understood.  This creates inherent issues in communication and connection that most of us can identify with.  The woman comes to the man in an effort to detail her feelings in hopes of being recognized and earning empathy.  In return, we men effort to fix the problem, often bypassing the feelings and emotions tied to it (which, as you probably know from personal experience, simply makes the situation worse).  

“Understanding must precede advice.”John M. Gottman

The same goes for listening, regardless of gender.  In most cases, we’re not looking for “answers” as the speaker – and in most cases, we also don’t have “answers” as the listener (even when we think we do).  So it goes to reason that most conversations are neither a solicitation of advice nor an opportunity to provide it. Rather, the goal is to listen empathetically, show deep understanding, and then ask difficult questions in the hopes of assisting the speaker toward a path of finding his or her own answers (which are far more likely to be the “right” answers for him or her).

“It’s usually more helpful to listen to sadness rather than trying to relieve it.”John M. Gottman

Take Notes:

This is another simple tool that helps me tremendously.  Specifically in phone conversation, virtual meetings, and group settings, I take notes.  To be completely honest, I don’t refer back to those notes as often as I’d like (although they do come in handy occasionally); but the simple act of note taking forces me to listen intently and attempt to interpret what I’m hearing.

“The discipline of writing things down ensures that I have to listen to people carefully.”Richard Branson

Be selective:

When you have something in your life that you need to share – when you’re in need of a caring listener – do you step up to the podium and broadcast it to the public?  Although some of us do use social media for this purpose, the answer for most, is ‘no.’ Similarly, not everyone is coming to you for an empathetic ear. And even those who do have to be filtered to some extent; there’s only so much of you to go around (and at some point, we all need to look out for ourselves – it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the needs of others at the expense of our own emotional health).  Take the time to identify those who really need you, and when. And gently direct others elsewhere.

“Caring enough to listen doesn’t mean going around selflessly available to everyone you encounter.  Rather, it means being alert to those situations in which someone you care about needs to be listened to.”Michael P. Nichols

Here are some books I recommend:

The Lost Art of Listening, by Michael P. Nichols

Losing my Virginity, by Richard Branson

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (& It’s All Small Stuff), by Richard Carlson

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John M. Gottman

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