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How to Be a Better Listener

Level up your listening with this simple mindset shift.

Photo by Christina @wocintechchat on Unsplash
Can we talk?
Source: Photo by Christina @wocintechchat on Unsplash

What happens in your mind when you hear the phrase, "We need to talk?" I am literally a professional listener, and still, that phrase puts me on guard. But when another human has something important to share, the best thing we can do is get into a mindset for listening.

Listening has always been a critical human capacity. It’s a common superpower amongst the best leaders, spouses, partners, and friends. Truly listening (without getting defensive) feels like the psychological skill of the moment.

Listening well isn't about knowing the science of communication, or memorizing a long list of rules. Though the knowledge has merit, it pales in comparison to actually clearing the mental clutter that gets in the way of receiving the essence of what a fellow human can teach us. In this way, listening is about suspending the need to know, in order to learn.

The tendency to overcomplicate what it takes to be a great listener reminds me of the well-known Zen koan about the professor and the cup of tea. There are many versions. Here is how it is written in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957), a collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in saved tea. He poured his visitor's cup full and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. 'It is overfull. No more will go in!'

‘Like this cup,' Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?'

Though the goal of every conversation is not as lofty as the attempt to understand Zen, we all engage in conversations that have the power to shift our perspective; but that turn into missed opportunities because, like the professor, our minds are muddied.

This is why when I teach workshops on listening I begin with the most foundational first step: Listening to understand. Listening with the intention of understanding what another human is trying to tell us doesn’t guarantee that we will understand. But it is the necessary starting point. Further, it conveys respect, humility, and wisdom.

There’s an exercise I did early in my training as a therapist, and that I now often repeat in workshops with professionals. The group breaks into pairs with one person being the listener, and one person sharing a current challenge.

In stage one, the listener listens with the goal of solving their partner’s problem. Sometimes good suggestions come from this. Sometimes it just feels really annoying. In stage two, the listener listens solely with the goal of understanding. Again, the results vary individual to individual, but in 100% of the cases, the difference between the two listening styles is palpable within minutes.

When the listener is listening with the goal of understanding, one common outcome is that the person sharing often spontaneously comes up with their own solution. Another common outcome is that the listener feels less anxious and more receptive.

Sometimes clients benefit from thinking about the art of listening visually. When listening to another person, they literally imagine a road between them and the person that they are seeking to better understand. With this imagery in mind, they become aware of roadblocks they are placing in their own way, such as defensiveness, distraction, or a knee-jerk desire to problem-solve. They may also become aware of roadblocks they want to keep in the way. While truly listening is a gift, it’s not one we are obligated to give, especially if the person speaking to us is acting in an abusive, or unkind way.

It would be absurd to suggest every conversation deserves our undivided attention and receptive listening mindset. But it serves us and others well to have the capacity to jump into this mindset when necessary, kind, or right.

Leveraging this capacity even 20% of the time is an utter game-changer for individuals, and even for the progress of society. As James Baldwin said, “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” The more power and privilege we are given, the more important it is to remedy ignorance by seeking opportunities to listen with at least as much fervor as we seek opportunities to be heard.

You can’t listen well without mastering the mindset of listening to understand. Though it may seem simplistic, it’s the most common step that gets overlooked, even by, or especially by, “experts.”

I urge you to pick a time to practice this skill this week. Pick one conversation, empty the teacup of your mind, and remind yourself (on repeat as needed), “My goal isn’t to solve or respond. My goal is to understand.” Whatever the outcome, please feel free to drop me a note about how it goes. I’m eager to listen.

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