Tag: Listening

Active Listening: The Master Key to Effective Communication

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”
― M. Scott Peck

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The Basics

The sense that we are not being listened to is one of the most frustrating feelings imaginable. Toddlers scream about it, teenagers move out, couples split up, companies breakdown.

One of the main reasons this breakdown in communication occurs is that listening (like reading, thinking clearly and focusing) is a skill which we rarely consider to be something requiring knowledge and practice.

There is a difference between hearing and listening.

We assume that, as long as we can hear someone and understand their words that we are listening. Hearing alone, however, is not enough. Among other things, we need to comprehend what’s being said and why, reflect on intentions, and consider non-verbal communication.

Listening is one of the foundations of society – it is what enables us to form meaningful relationships and connections. And yet most of us haven’t thought about how we listen.

As Mortimer J. Adler writes in How to Speak, How to Listen:

We all realize that the ability to read requires training…the same would appear to be true of speaking and listening … training is required … Likewise, skill in listening is either a native gift or it must be acquired by training.

Active listening is a technique for developing our ability to listen.

As a communication technique, it is used in many professional settings but is also valuable for everyday life. Anyone who has ever seen a good therapist will be familiar with the efficacy of active listening. A one-to-one therapist will listen with intent, clarify any uncertain points, often paraphrase what is said and ask the speaker to expand. A family or couple therapist will help to resolve a conflict by facilitating calm communication through reflection, open body language, and by helping couples understand one another.

As Sheldon B. Kopp writes:

The therapist can interpret, advise, provide the emotional acceptance and support that nurtures personal growth, and above all, he can listen. I do not mean that he can simply hear the other, but that he will listen actively and purposefully, responding with the instrument of his trade that is, with the personal vulnerability of his own trembling self. This listening is that which will facilitate the patient’s telling of his tale, the telling that can set him free.

For the sake of clarity, we will refer to active listening in the context of two people conversing throughout this article. However, it can occur in communication between multiple people and in groups.

Listening is difficult because it involves suppressing your ego long enough to consider what is being said before you respond.

The Core Components of Active Listening

Comprehending

To communicate, we must first understand what the other person (or people) are actually saying. This is not as simple as it appears.

In most cases, comprehension occurs instantly and unconsciously. However, a number of potential barriers can prevent comprehension, including:

  • Language barriers.
  • The use of jargon or slang.
  • Difference in culture, age, social rank and other discrepancies between people.

In Eyes Wide Open, Isaac Lidsky recommends simplifying comprehension by asking ‘can you explain that like I’m five years old?.’ This is the same technique we use to rapidly improve learning. Removing jargon and explaining things in your own language results in massively improved comprehension of complex topics.

Retaining

To respond in an appropriate manner, we must understand and retain what the other person has said. Not everyone will retain the same details.

Some people recall very specific details, while others hold on to the general idea. It is common for us to only retain details which are relevant for our response.

When actively listening, we focus on the other person’s words, rather than thinking about what we can say next. Suppressing our ego is difficult. It’s as if we think we already know what the other person is going to say. And we fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve done the work: that we not only know what the other person will say but that we’ve thought about it before. Only, we haven’t.

There are a number of potential barriers to retention, including:

  • Cognitive biases and selective listening (we will look at this in more detail later.)
  • Distractions, either internal or external (such as fatigue or a noisy environment.)
  • Issues with memory (such as Dementia.)

Responding

Conversations are active, not passive. A conversation between people cannot occur without a response.

Active listening requires careful responses which are made possible with comprehending and retaining.

An active response should show that we understand what the other person has said, have paid attention to their words and also read their non-verbal cues.

Ronald A. Heifetz writes that “The activity of interpreting might be understood as listening for the song beneath the words.” To be an active listener, we must try to go beyond the words and form a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions. However, we must also avoid inventing meaning or colouring their words with our own thoughts. The same potential barriers apply to responding as to retaining and comprehending.

To be an active listener, we must try to go beyond the words and form a rich picture of the other person’s emotions and intentions.

Active Listening and Overcoming Cognitive Biases

Active listening requires an understanding of how cognitive biases and shortcuts impact our communication. These are particularly prevalent when people are arguing and disagreeing.

Consider the following hypothetical argument between a couple, Mary and John. Any resemblance to your marriage is purely coincidental.

Mary: You never help around the house, you came home drunk twice last week, you forgot to pick the kids up from school, you never buy me flowers, you—
John: I bought you flowers on Valentine’s day!

In this instance, John is succumbing to confirmation bias in order to refute Mary’s statements. Ignoring the other claims, he responds to the one which he can easily disagree with. John fools himself into believing that because he can refute one statement, they are all false.

John: I bought you flowers on Valentine’s day!
Mary: That was the first you’ve brought me flowers in 5 years.

John is now falling prey to availability bias. He remembers one event which was recent and salient, while ignoring the preceding times.

Mary: That was the first time you’ve brought me flowers in 5 years.
John: So? None of my friends buy their partners flowers, even on Valentine’s day.

Social proof is now coming into play. John has looked to their peers for clues as to how he should behave. Rather than considering how Mary feels, he is reassuring himself that his behavior is fine because it is common.

Mary: Anyway, the flowers you brought me that time were wilted and you clearly got them from the gas station on your way home.

Here, Mary is seeing a distorted view of events due to her current anger (bias from hating/disliking.) An event which previously made Mary happy is now only further evidence of her partner’s inadequacy.

The examples above are just a few of the numerous cognitive biases and shortcuts which impede our communication.

Now, let’s imagine how this argument might have gone if John had used active listening techniques.

This would necessitate putting aside emotions and ego and rather trying to understand why Mary is upset.

Mary: You never help around the house, you came home drunk twice last week, you forgot to pick the kids up from school, you never buy me flowers and I’m sick of it.
John: So, you feel I am being a bad parent, ignoring your needs, and allowing my social life to interfere with our relationship?

John is now paraphrasing what Mary has said, confirming that he is listening. It’s important to note that John is not outright agreeing with Mary. Rather than seeking to defend himself, he is making sure Mary knows he is listening.

By keeping calm and showing open body language, he can then allow Mary to finish venting her frustration without interrupting. This provides a safe and secure environment for Mary to open up and express her true feelings.

John maintains eye contact and uses nonverbal cues (such as nodding and tilting his head to indicate he is listening.) Mary relaxes a little, seeing that her partner appears to be truly interested in what she has to say.

Then, John can speak:

John: What can I do which would make you feel better about our relationship?

This question is neutral and not related to personal opinion. John has allowed Mary to explore her feelings. By continuing in this way, they can turn an argument into a valuable opportunity to understand each other better.

The result in this situation is likely to be far more positive than the initial example. Even just by reading the words, you probably pictured both scenarios somewhat differently, complete with altered tones of voice and outcomes.

Active Listening as a Means of Overcoming Conversational Narcissism

If you have ever been in a conversation with someone who is only interested in talking about themselves, you will understand what conversational narcissism is and how it makes you feel.

Sociologist Charles Derber first observed the phenomenon, wherein people allow their self obsession to manifest in their conversational practices. Rather than listening to what the other person has to say and responding accordingly, many people shift the discussion to themselves.

In Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America, Tom Shachtman writes:

[Conversational Narcissism] is pervasive and rooted in our culture of individualism, a pattern that leads to self-absorption … by the use of ‘I’ statements, by boasting, by the tactic of asking questions only in order to demonstrate the questioner’s superior knowledge or to top the other person’s story with one’s own, and by continual shifting…The most frequently used written word in the language is ‘the’, but the most frequently spoken word..is ‘I.’

Derber describes this as the ‘shift response’ as opposed to a ‘support response.’ In The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life, he writes:

The subtlety of the shift-response is that it is always based on a connection to the previous subject. This creates an opening for the respondent to shift the topic to himself … when serving narcissistic ends, shift-responses are repeated until a clear shift in subject has transpired … The effectiveness is the shift response as an attention getting device lies partly in the difficulty in distinguishing immediately whether a given response is a sharing one of a narcissistic initiative.

Conversational narcissists will often repeat shift-responses until the conversation steers towards them. Again.

Returning to our hypothetical couple, this might look like this:

John: I’m just really stressed about work at the moment.
Mary: Me too, you wouldn’t believe what one of my coworkers did yesterday.
John: And it’s hard for me to pay enough attention to the kids when I have this much on my plate and just want to relax when I get home.
Mary: Seriously, what she did was ridiculous.
John: What did she do?

In this conversation, Mary repeats the shift-response until John finally gets the point and switches the topic away from himself.

The narcissistic nature of this is obvious in a conversational transcript but can be difficult to identify.

Support-responses are the opposite of shift-responses — they sustain the speaker’s words and encourage them. If Mary had used support responses, the conversation might look like this:

John: I’m just really stressed about work at the moment.
Mary: Why is it more stressful than usual right now?
John: Well, one of the people in my team is on holiday for a couple of weeks and I keep getting landed with their usual responsibilities.
Mary: Have you spoken to your boss about that? You shouldn’t be doing someone else’s job as well as your own.

Notice how different those two scenarios sounded in your head.

In the first conversation, Mary was purely narcissistic and just wanted to talk about herself. In the second, the couple was able to understand each other a bit better and to see a potential root cause of their conflict.

Conversational narcissism also occurs through passive behavior.

Derber writes:

Passive conversational narcissism entails neglect of supportive questions at all such discretionary points and extremely sparse use of them throughout conversation. Listening behaviour takes place but is passive. There is little attempt to draw others out or assume other forms of active listening. This creates doubt in the other regarding the interest of their topics or their rights to attention … A second very common minimal use practice involves the … delay of background acknowledgements. Although weaker than supportive questions, background acknowledgements such as ‘yeah’ or ‘uh huh’ are nonetheless critical cues by which speakers gauge the degree of interest in their topics.

As Derber illustrates, we must not underestimate the importance of our responses when it comes to active listening.

The other person does not care if we listen with great attention if our responses do not reflect this. In some cases, a comment or question is necessary. Often, a simple acknowledgment is sufficient.

In The Plateau Effect, Sullivan and Thompson explain the folly of conversational narcissism:

Most people listen with intent to do something – usually to defend themselves, or to solve a problem. Nearly everyone listens with the intent of having something ready to say as soon as the speaker is finished. Have you ever wondered how crazy that is? Shouldn’t there be a pause once in a while, as one of the speakers actually thinks about what to say, or even better, thinks about what has been said? Here’s a phenomenon you’ll observe repeatedly if you look for it: Two speakers, appearing to be carrying on a conversation, but really just giving two monologues, split up by each other, each one waiting simply for time on whatever stage he or she imagines to be on…Listeners usually can’t wait to leap to their own defense, and spend their time thinking like an attorney who’s planning a closing argument rather than hearing what’s being said. You can imagine how ineffective this is.”

How Can We Improve Our Active Listening Skills?

While there is no one method for learning to listen actively, there are a number of small changes we can make.

Active listening, like any skill, is developed by practicing, not by reading about it. By applying the concept to each conversation we have, we can gradually develop the ability to communicate well. This might include:

  • Educate yourself on common cognitive biases and shortcuts. Learn to spot them in yourself and others and to see how they impede communication.
  • Avoid trying to respond immediately. Allow the other person time to finish speaking, then provide a considered response. Consider first if it is a shift or support response.
  • Minimize conversational narcissism by keeping track of your use of pronouns. An over-reliance on ‘I’ and ‘me’ can indicate a desire to steer the conversation towards yourself. Aim to make liberal use of ‘you’ instead.
  • Adler recommends taking notes during key conversations. Although this may be disconcerting to a speaker, it is relevant in some situations. Adler writes: “The notes you take while listening record what you have done with your mind to take in what you have heard. That record enables you to go on to the second step…What you have notes…provides you with food for thought.”
  • During an argument, accept that people are rarely willing to change their viewpoint. Instead of becoming enraged or frustrated, seek to develop a clear picture of the other person’s logic. Using the Socratic questioning technique can be helpful for drawing out this information. Using active listening, it is possible to turn an argument into a calm discussion, where you can explain your own thoughts. Adler explains: “The logically sensitive speaker will ask you to follow his reasoning by accepting his assumptions for the time being – accepting them to discern their consequences, to see how they lead to the conclusions he wishes to arrive at…they are not axioms or self-evident truths…your task is to be on the alert to detect the initial premises…that provide the ultimate grounds for what is being said.”
  • Increase your motivation to listen. This is known as the affective framework for active listening. This motivation might be the desire to improve a relationship, follow instructions without wasting time, make someone feel better or to make an exchange as clear as possible.

Listening and the Learning Lens

Seneca Friendship
In Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference, there is an excellent chapter on listening.

When it comes to describing much of what currently passes for personal communication, the analogy of the crocodile is an apt one: all mouth and no ears.

So this is why mom and dad used to tell me that I had two ears and one mouth. Yet no one has ever taught me how to listen. I mean really listen.

Communication is arguably the most important life skill of all. The quality of human relations is in large part determined by the quality of communication. There are talkers and there are listeners, but we don’t learn much, if anything, while we are talking.

Communicating means both transmitting and receiving. We receive through our ears, eyes, feelings, and perception.

But information doesn’t enter the brain directly. It passes through our eyes, ears and other sense organs before being processed by our brain. We receive information through the “lenses” we are wearing. We are going to consider two types of communication lens: what I call the lecturing lens and the learning lens. Each of us has a default tendency towards one or the other. Which is your default mode?

First let’s talk about the lens distorters.

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The Lens Distorters

These inhibit clear communication. Here are some of the most common ones.

The limits of language. There are a few distorters at work here. To begin with, verbal communication represents just a small part of overall communication. When we speak to each other we are essentially blowing air at each other – albeit in a highly sophisticated fashion. Phone calls are far less effective than face-to-face encounters. Secondly, we are not always able to find the right words. Words are often not specific enough. We have a word for friend and a word for enemy. What about someone in between? An acquaintance perhaps? What about a work colleague that you respect and trust but would not want to socialise with? Even black and white are not black and white. I recently met the head of an international thread manufacturer that produced over 200 different shades of “white” thread!

Different histories and cultures. Your lens and my lens will have been shaped by our individual histories and conditioning. Words, gestures or tones that may seem humorous and harmless to me could seem offensive to you.

Different contexts. In addition to unique histories, everyone has a different current context and emotional state. …

Irrational expectation of rationality. When we communicate we expect that logic is what drives other people’s behaviour. The reality is that much more is at play and you will waste a lot of time in this world trying to move people through brute logic.

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What Is Your Default Lens?

Are you a talker or listener?

Animated or observant? Focused on yourself or on the other person? I characterise those of us who are more likely to be talkers as wearing the lecturing lens. Gaps in conversation are simply periods during which we gather our thoughts to continue our lecture – me and my story. Others are better listeners and tend to communicate through a learning lens. I suspect that good listeners are in the minority, which makes defaulting to the learning lens all the more effective. There can be no real understanding without listening. We feel honoured when others take a genuine interest in understanding our position. When people understand us we are psychologically validated. Our opinion matters. We matter.

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Suggestions For Better Communication With Others

Make the learning lens your default setting. Approach every conversation with an open mind. OK, I have a view and I believe it to be the correct one, but, what might I be missing here? What if the other person has some insight that can illuminate my own? What if I am wrong? We listen intently not just with our ears, but with our eyes and our senses. We are paying attention, striving to perceive what is really going on in the other person’s mind. And they know and appreciate it. The whole conversation is a journey of discovery not a battle of wits.

Make them a star. Try to bring out the best in other people. This is not false flattery, but helping people get their views properly heard and understood. Do not seek to show off how smart you are.

Be courteous. There is no need for rudeness. Respect the right of someone to have a different opinion from yours. Leave unconstructive criticism at the door. There is no good in it. It merely creates resentment and distorts the other person’s lens, often for a long time. If you call a person an idiot, both you, and the person you insulted, have changed. No apology can take back the words. Avoid criticising people in print or in front of others.

Double check your gut feelings. For example, first impressions can trigger subconscious negative emotions. The person resembles someone you had a problem with, and you suddenly dislike them. Abraham Lincoln understood this risk. When he met someone he didn’t like, he resolved to get to know them better.

Find your words. Once you have demonstrated a full understanding of the other person’s view, think carefully about what you want to say and then don’t say it! Try instead to figure out what the other person is likely to hear. In other words, try to make some allowance for the distortions in their lens. Your opinion on something is more credible when you can also clearly articulate the contrary view. Good communicators are thoughtful in how they choose and arrange their words.

Words are never enough. Your tone and demeanour should be consistent with, and supportive of, the whole message.

Choose quality over quantity. Don’t always feel there is a need to fill every moment with communication.

Know when to give or accept an apology. A genuine apology, offered sincerely and accepted, is one the most emotionally mature human interactions.

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To Sum Up

Don’t be a crocodile, all mouth and no ears. Choose a learning lens over a lecturing lens. Be aware of the differences between your lenses and those of others. To truly listen to others is a gift to them. Give it with courtesy and humility. The payback is real understanding.

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I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference.

Peak Listening — A Simple Trick You Can Apply Today

The Plateau Effect

I thought this excerpt from The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success was worth thinking about.

If you try to improve your listening skills, you’ll notice a lot of discussion about “listening with intent.” That phrase means different things to different people, but here’s how we will use it. Most people listen with intent to do something – usually to defend themselves, or to solve a problem. Nearly everyone listens with the intent of having something ready to say as soon as the speaker is finished. Have you ever wondered how crazy that is? Shouldn’t there be a pause once in a while, as one of the speakers actually thinks about what to say, or even better, thinks about what has been said? Here’s a phenomenon you’ll observe repeatedly if you look for it: Two speakers, appearing to be carrying on a conversation, but really just giving two monologues, split up by each other, one each waiting simply for time on whatever stage he or she imagines to be on. Call it “talking past each other,” if you like, it’s clearly a cultural cancer that’s been learned from the endless chatter on talk radio and cable TV, where you will never hear the following phrase from a talking head: “That’s a good point; let me think about that for a moment.” There is no “thinking for a moment,” on television; in fact, every pause is penalized.

Of course, if the speaker is saying something that might be hard to hear – “I hate your product,” or “Why are you so selfish?” all this goes double. Listeners usually can’t wait to leap to their own defense, and spend their time thinking like an attorney who’s planning a closing argument rather than hearing what’s being said. You can imagine how ineffective this is.

We’d like to see you try something very different: Listening with intent to agree. That’s right: Before you offer an explanation or defense, just imagine that whatever the other person is saying must be true. That’s radical. But it sure is the fastest way to get new ideas into your brain. That’s peak listening. For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to divide the world into two categories: sociopaths, who lie without guilt and who really have nothing but their own selfish gains in mind; and everyone else. If you are in the presence of a true sociopath, then all bets are off. The advice we give here is useless. But after you’ve determined that your spouse, friend, co-worker, or customer isn’t a sociopathic liar, here’s a thought that will short-circuit almost every fight you ever have.

The person you are listening to is right. Always. You wife, your husband, your employee, your customers. They’re right.

They may not be 100 percent right. But even if he or she is hysterical and speaking in terribly ineffective language, perhaps even accusing you of things that on the surface are demonstrably false, THERE IS TRUTH IN WHAT THEY ARE SAYING. And rather than defend yourself by finding error in some details, challenge yourself to find the deeper truth of what’s being said. Often, that will require you to dig deep into that 93 percent of non-verbal communication. It will definitely require you to drop all your defenses, and in some cases, it will feel like you are being forced to believe that black is white and the sky is orange.

Here’s a simple trick you can apply today to take a step in the right direction. Anyone who has ever taken a class in improvisation has learned the “yes, and…” technique. Ever wonder what keeps a great improv troupe from falling silent? It’s simple. No one is allowed to say no. Whatever is said, the other actors are forced to accept it and build upon it. This conversational style pays immediate dividends. Instead of creating blocks, or, “stops” to the chatter, it allows group discussions to build on each other. Talking takes on a spirit that floats higher and higher, as opposed to the use of what some called “conversation stoppers” thrown in by negative nellies. These sound like, “I don’t believe that,” or, “what’s your proof for that?” or, often, simply, “No.” Those stuck in a deconstructivist frame of mind often can’t help but bring down conversations. You know them because they often leave people feeling like a balloon has just been popped and its remnants have crashed to the floor. Popping other people’s balloons is a sure-fire way to discourage them from telling you how they really feel; and a terrible way to break out of plateaus caused by becoming stuck in a feedback-proof cocoon.

Steven Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, argues there are Five levels of listening: (1) Ignoring; (2) Pretending to listen; (3) Selective listening; (4) Active listening; and (5) Empathetic listening.