How to Listen Instead of Just 'HearingFeb 17, 2021
Hearing the Difference...Or is it Listening to the Difference?
Many years ago, I came across a quote (that I’ve since forgotten), but the gist has stayed with me. Basically, the idea is that most everyone can hear, but few people know how to listen.
I think of it this way: do you know anyone who can taste a new dish name the subtle herbs, spices, and other flavourings that went into it?
How about the friend who can smell a new perfume, and she knows the top, the middle, the bottom notes (aka, head, heart, and base) - she can actually perceive them there in that first spritz?
What about that family member who can look at a colour, and tell you the various composite colours you would use to recreate the colour?
There are, of course, people who can hear something musical, and know the intricacies of that sound.
Well, these kinds of talents are what I’m talking about when I say there’s a difference between hearing and listening.
Do you possess any of these abilities that seem extraordinary, like some sort of weird superpower??
Well, if you don’t, you could.
Because - as far as I’m concerned - being able to listen IS a superpower that can be learned.
Lots of lip service is given to the “art of listening”, at least in some camps. There is also the “Huh? There’s a difference between hearing and listening?” clueless camp and the “This is just more New Age liberal crap, and hearing IS listening” righteous camp.
In the ‘Art of Listening’ camp, they really like to teach things like paraphrasing and mirroring. Having been trained that way, and used it myself, I am of the opinion (and experience) that that just pisses people off. So that’s NOT what I’m sharing.
But back to my point - hearing and listening are absolutely different things. This is a hill I’m absolutely willing to die on.
How Listening Feels
If you’ve never had the experience of someone truly listening to you, then I’m sad for you.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. Most people listen with the intent to reply.”
~ Stephen R. Covey
Listening is not just going through the motions, either to get through your turn so they can get to their turn (and often they’ll interrupt you, just to get there faster) or they pretend to listen in order to get rid of your need to talk (and maybe even get rid of you). The latter one happens a lot when screen technology is involved (the person who is clearly reading texts when you’re talking to them, for instance).
Being listened to is an amazing experience. And it can often be life-changing. When you feel what happens when someone takes the time to truly listen to you, you will feel a variety of things: at first, a bit (or a lot) exposed), a sense of warmth and comfort, freedom, and a crumbling of walls. Ironically, the experience often transcends words - in other words, words can’t help you explain how being listened to makes you feel.
And if you have had this experience, remember (if you can) how you felt about the person listening to you. Warmth? Engagement? Trust? Further, ask yourself how willing you were to listen to what they had to say or ask when they did (if they did) finally take a turn.
Did you feel the distance between two humans dissolve? Whether you believe in the science around human biofields (or energy fields), whether the biophysics at play in our existence (and the quantum physics position that there is no difference between matter and energy) is something you embrace, it remains to be explained how this feeling of unification and connection occurs. Enough experiential and anecdotal evidence exists to at least force us to consider the questions further.
Here’s what I know: when I listen, using the skills I’ll share with you here, something intrinsic - and transformative - happens in the exchange. It is no longer merely a word-transaction: it’s an energetic-transaction where I see, feel, hear and understand far more than I would otherwise.
How to Start Listening Better TODAY
If you’ve never learned to listen, then it’s only fair to warn you that - like any other skill - it takes time, practice, patience, and you will not get it “all right” right out of the gate. At least, I don’t think you will.
When you read through this list, you might be like, “Um, D….?” Here’s where I ask you to trust me.
Finally, and without further ado, The List:
1) Stop talking
Just stop talking. This doesn’t mean ‘don’t participate’ - far from it. It’s just that the nature of your participation is going to change. When you offer longer pauses, when you don’t jump into the silence because you have this urge to “fill the space”, amazing things happen. People feel things. They notice things. They reflect. They have realizations and epiphanies. And all because you gave them space. If you pay attention, you’ll know when it’s time to rejoin the conversation - with words.
2) Stop talking in your head
You know you do it. You’re telling yourself stories about what the speaker means, intends, is doing/not doing, you’re thinking of the errands you have to run, the messages you have to return, you’re scripting your response to them for when it’s your turn to speak, you’re rewatching your favourite scene from The Queen’s Gambit or Bridgerton, you’re planning what to order at Starbucks. Just stop it. That internal reel is one of the hardest things to ‘pause’ on, believe me. Which is why Number 3 is…
3) Breathe deeply and take notice
This is very ‘meta’, to quote the 14-year-olds I know (I don’t bother telling them, as a researcher, I was ‘meta’ before they were a zygote. But I digress). Scan for any emotions creeping into body parts - take note, but this is like ‘catch-and-release’ fishing, so just let it go. Don’t dwell, berate yourself, or whatever weird thing you might do in your head - ‘cause a) it’s contrary to what you’re trying to do (see #2, above), and b) it’ll show on your face as grimaces, flinches, cringes, and the like. Definitely not effectively listening. Obviously.
4) Move everything out of your line of sight and away from your fingers
You’re human. As a result, you’re likely fidgety, curious, distractible, and not altogether aware of how much so. So, to keep your better angels on your side, flip over, turn off, push away, close down, etc., anything that will tempt you to draw your attention away from the task in front of you - listening. And if you’re a parent, THIS IS WHERE THE GOLD IS.
5) Watch and/or listen very closely
Whether you’re in a Zoom, in person, or on the phone, the person you are communicating with is giving you a tremendous amount of information all the time. Sure, pay attention to the words they’re using, but more importantly, listen/watch for the hesitations, longer pauses, changes in speech, pitch, volume, stress, and watch their eyes, facial expression, body posture gestures, and breathing patterns.
This last one is where people sometimes really hit paydirt OR they realize they are really unprepared for the intricacies of how human communication actually works (when it works as it should).
There you are - a little ‘starter set’ of skills and techniques to better equip you to begin listening with purpose and intention. It’s not easy, as I said earlier, to shift a lifetime of habits (and build a toolkit from scratch), but it IS doable, and it’s one of the most powerful abilities you will ever possess.
Go forth, listen more!
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