Are you good at listening? What are your listening styles? There are three main styles:
- No true listening, and therefore, no true communication. Unfortunately, this is the most common style. A conversation is not two monologues happening simultaneously. Someone wants to say something, how s/he feels, her/his concerns, ideas, etc. and s/he is interrupted and given advice: “You should always look on the bright side of things,” “At first, it will be painful and difficult, but time heals everything,” “Experience is what you gain when you don’t get what you want,” “You need to work harder and longer,” etc.
Conversation in the United States is a competitive exercise in which the first person to draw a breath is declared the listener, Nathan Miller.
There are many variants: someone will tell you a similar story (“something similar happened to me …,” “you are complaining a lot, but that’s nothing compared to what I overcame when…”); people will minimise your ordeal (“this is not such a big deal,” “it has happened to all of us and we are all here, alive and kicking,” “Life is like that”); and try to comfort and calm you down (“Sleep well, and no doubt tomorrow you will see things differently,” “Take it easy, things will get better somehow!,” “There is nothing else you can do, so just sit back and relax”).
- Expert mode. This style consists basically of three stages:
Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply, Stephen R. Covey.
- It is about listening without haste, avoiding distractions and interruptions, and with sincere interest. It is about asking questions to deepen our understanding, resolve doubts, etc.
- The problem is analysed, possible alternatives are identified and discussed.
- A solution or, better still, an idea or suggestion is proposed to overcome or deal with the problem.
- Empathetic listening. This is the most difficult and challenging to achieve in practice because it requires us to stop being a problem solver, fix-it man, and avoid jumping to conclusions. Too often we are intent on speaking rather than making sure we are truly understanding what the other person is saying. All the attention is focused on the speaker, it takes more time, but it is more meaningful and effective.
A caring heart that listens is often more valued than an intelligent mind that talks, Michael Josephson.
This listening style is mainly empathetic. It is about providing a space and time for the other person to be able to talk with confidence, so s/he can bring out their feelings, ideas, and emotions. The speaker should feel that s/he is heard, understood, and accepted.
Although it may seem a waste of time, it is not by any means the case. We are talking about active listening, it is not about being quiet and passive. On the contrary, you should start by showing the speaker that you want to know more (“Tell me more please,” “I am all ears”). Ask him/her open questions to encourage dialogue and let them elaborate (“If so, then what?” “What are your options? What will you do?”)
Then, as dialogue progresses, we will ask him/her more specific questions to explore what obstacles and difficulties s/he is facing, to deepen our understanding on what is going on, to discern alternative choices, what their pros and cons are, and help him/her to find the best option (“If you take this option, what happens?” “What will happen if you don’t take action?”).
Before even hearing him/her saying the first word, an active listener is already gathering information from the body language, for example, how s/he looks, dresses, stands or sits, his/her facial expressions, emotions, and gestures. It is important to discover what is not being said, what has been considered irrelevant or perhaps too painful or uncomfortable to communicate (“I can’t go on like this any longer,” “I am a failure”). It is also about exploring, challenging people’s generalizations (“I should have known better. All women are basically whores”) and possible distortions (“My boss doesn’t care about me as a person, only about my productivity and contribution to the bottom line,” “I am so stupid for this to have happened”).
It is understood that solutions cannot come from outside, but must come from within us. It is about helping people to open up and express their feelings by asking them questions, by repeating and paraphrasing what they have just said so that we also help them to clarify their problems and feelings. Let me illustrate this with two examples where a mother talks to a teacher about her child.
Mother: “I have come to this meeting because I don’t know what is wrong with my child. I know he’s a good boy and would never harm anyone. He is very naive and good-natured but he wastes so much time playing violent video games, chatting with friends, and watching TV. My son watches YouTube for hours every day, I can’t get him to turn it off. I know we’re moving to a video/audio, less-text future for our culture. To be honest, I don’t see him reading or studying much. He is very smart but very lazy. I don’t really know how my son is performing in his class.”
Teacher: “If I have understood you correctly, you are very concerned about your child’s academic performance because he is not studying much.”
Mother: “I’m not sure if you can understand what a tough time I’m going through with my son. He goes out with his friends, and has been getting drunk for the last year and a half. He comes back regurgitating everything that he has eaten and drunk. I am desperate, I don’t know what I can or should do. I am afraid every time he goes out. I’m scared that one day I will receive a call either from the hospital or the police.”
Teacher: “I see that you are very worried and distressed about your son. I’m really sorry.”
You can also open and explore new possibilities (“If you tried… what would happen?”). It is about inviting them to draw their own conclusions and making them responsible for their own decisions: “So, what do you think is your best option?” “What are the pros and cons of each option?” “What are you going to do?”
Finally, we can bring new information for further analysis and consideration, for instance, “I would like you to visit the GreenFacts portal to learn more about alcohol and its effects. What do you think?” You may also want to challenge some of the assumptions and generalizations being made: “After listening to you very intently, are you not overreacting a little? Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it.” You may also want to show some blind spots, for example, confirmation bias (“What human beings are best at doing, is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact,” Warren Buffett).