- Listening facilitates profound introspection, self-disclosure, and social connection.
- Good listening includes the components of attention, comprehension, and positive intention.
- High-quality listening benefits both the speaker and the listener.
- To listen better, try to learn something new during the interaction.
“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” —David W. Augsburger
On average, humans spend a considerable portion of their lives in conversation. Along with the words we exchange, we acquire information, build connections, and remarkably, affect each other’s neurobiology.
Yet, with all the talking and listening we do, when was the last time you felt really heard? After all, as Hemingway argued, “Most people never listen.”
Perhaps because of all the ingredients that make up great conversations, listening is the one we routinely take for granted. Listening has even been dubbed the Cinderella skill of second language learning, often overlooked by the more beguiling step-sisters: speaking and reading.
Guy Itzchakov has been studying listening for the past 11 years. One of his main insights has been just how complex and powerful listening is, and how amiss we’d be to take our roles as listeners lightly. After all, as Itzchakov argues, it is listening that facilitates profound introspection, self-disclosure, and social connection, and it is the listeners who continuously open doors for the speakers, helping them gain new insights into themselves.
Here are 9 questions on listening with Dr. Itzchakov.
Why do we often underestimate the power of listening, and are more concerned about coming across as good speakers?
GI: I believe it’s because of the misperception that listening is a passive skill. In reality, the listener is often the one who sets the tone of the conversation by using “backchannel behaviors,” which are verbal and non-verbal behaviors that affect the conversation. For example, think of a time when the person who we're speaking with suddenly frowned or leaned back and folded their arms. How did that make you feel?
I see listening as not the goal, but as a powerful instrument for facilitating social connection. When you listen to me well, you’ll elicit more authentic self-disclosure from me, because I’ll feel less anxious and more connected to you. As a result, you’ll likely reciprocate by listening well to me when it’s my turn to speak.
On average, how often do we experience high-quality listening in our interactions?
GI: High-quality listening is an effortful process that takes time and energy. In my lab, for example, we train our research assistants for 10-12 hours before they provide high-quality listening to our participants.
On average, I don’t think people experience the listening quality they wish for in their day-to-day conversations. Moreover, we shouldn’t expect all our interactions to involve high-quality listening, since we engage in a lot of small talk. But when we do experience an episode of high-quality listening, it can be very impactful.
What are the necessary ingredients of high-quality listening?
GI: Good listening has a number of important ingredients. The first one relates to the component of attention. Non-verbal behaviors, such as gaze, body posture, voice, and eye-contact fall under this category.
Consider eye-contact. In a meaningful conversation, the speaker doesn’t usually look at the listener the entire time (especially if they are thinking or introspecting, their gaze will travel all around them). Every few seconds, however, the speaker will turn their gaze back to the listener. When they perceive that the listener is looking at them, it will give them the reassurance of still having the listener’s attention.
Eye contact is also important in helping speakers overcome internal disturbances. For example, if I glance at you during our conversation and see that you’re looking somewhere else, I might start worrying that I’m boring you or that I’m talking too much.
The second component is comprehension. We can make people feel “understood” with our listening by providing reflection, for example, by paraphrasing or summarizing what the speaker said and asking, “Did I understand you correctly?” These reflections can make the speaker feel “heard,” and also help them gain insights into something they weren’t aware of before.
Another powerful way is through asking questions. While an irrelevant question can lead the conversation astray, a good question—one that puts the needs of the speaker above the curiosity of the listener—will convey to the speaker that the listener is trying to understand them and wants to know more.
The third important ingredient of good listening is positive intention. A non-judgmental approach does not mean you have to agree with everything you hear. It means accepting the speaker’s freedom to express what they want to express.
In our research, when speakers disclosed difficult experiences of social rejection, listeners could convey this non-judgmental attitude by using validating phrases such as, “Thank you for sharing this with me—I’m sure it wasn’t easy.” Another way to show positive intent is to use hedges, which are phrases that make the listener appear less certain. For example, instead of saying, “I think you should do this,” one could say, “Maybe it would be good for you to try this or that.” Uncertainty from the listener’s side conveys that the speaker is leading the conversation.
What are the benefits of high-quality listening for the speaker and the listener?
GI: So far, research has primarily focused on the speaker—the one being listened to. Here, studies point to plenty of well-being benefits. For example, employees who feel listened to report higher job satisfaction, better performance, more commitment to the workplace, and less burn-out and turnover intentions.
When it comes to well-being effects on the listener, we have found that service industry employees who participated in listening training were better able to handle difficult conversations with customers, as a result of feeling less anxious and more competent in their ability to face challenging situations. In sales, good listeners have been shown to sell more, because of their ability to gain the speakers’ trust. In general, good listeners are considered more liked. Furthermore, the better one listens, the more social connection one feels, which can yield a wealth of positive effects in itself.
Listening also has enemies. One of them is secondary trauma. For example, when I listen to someone’s difficult experience and it stirs emotions in me that I wish to keep repressed, then listening might undermine my well-being.
Why are some people better listeners than others?
On the other hand, it’s not like you either have it or you don’t. With training, most people will improve their listening skills.
In a recent study led by Avi Kluger, we investigated whether good listening depends on the listener, the speaker, or whether it’s something that emerges within a particular dyad. For example, will everyone agree that Person X is a good listener if we asked all their colleagues? Or does good listening emerge more when Person X is speaking to Person A than to Person B?
We found that most of the effects on listening quality come from the specific dyad. Listening is a very intimate process. Similar to romantic relationships, there needs to be a match between conversation partners to facilitate high-quality listening.
For example, if I have an avoidant attachment style and you listen to me really well by maintaining eye contact and asking questions, I might feel that you’re coming too close to my comfort zone. Thus, I might fare better with a listener who focuses more on the technical details than on my emotions during the conversation.
What competencies are good listening skills most likely to be associated with?
GI: Good listening is compounded with various positive factors, such as social support, respect, and perceived responsiveness. Conversely, lack of listening can carry negative connotations.
For example, in a romantic relationship, your partner’s poor listening might be interpreted as them not being supportive enough. In the workplace, if a colleague continuously checks their messages when you speak to them could make them come across as rude and disrespectful.
How can we put aside our judgments while listening to others?
GI: It’s not easy, especially when the topic is important to us. But it’s possible, precisely because listening is not a passive behavior.
The first key is awareness. Be aware that when you listen to something that you strongly disagree with, your body will likely react to the information. You might unintentionally frown or lean away from the speaker. These subtle non-verbal behaviors may be automatic and can affect the speaker and the conversation.
Secondly, don’t try to fight your internal thoughts and reactions—that would distract from the conversation. Remember, it’s not only about being non-judgmental towards the other person, but also yourself.
Finally, after the conversation, by reflecting on your behavior as a listener, you’ll realize when and why you suddenly shut off, which will likely help you in your next conversation.
How can we ensure that people listen to us?
GI: One way is to tell a story. But since we can’t always tell stories, for others to listen to us, we need to listen to them. Listening is a reciprocal process. When most people experience that you listen well to them, they will reciprocate by listening to you.
What are some tips for becoming a good listener?
GI: Try to learn something new—about the person you are listening to, or from them. Each of us knows something about the world that others don’t. When you take genuine interest in learning from the person you are conversing with, many of the behaviors that facilitate good listening—eye contact, not judging, not interrupting, asking questions—will come automatically.
Another tip: Ask yourself, “Do I believe that by merely listening to this person I can help them?” Usually, people who believe that listening, in and of itself, can help the speaker will be better listeners. (Those who don’t will be quicker to rush into giving advice.) The entire paradigm of listening rests on the premise that the solutions to our conflicts lie within us. Our primary goal as listeners is not to impart anything external, but to help the speakers draw the answers that are already in them.
Many thanks to Guy Itzchakov for his time and insights. Dr. Itzchakov is Associate Professor at the Department of Social Welfare and Health Sciences at the University of Haifa.
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