Listen up, bud!


My oldest son has this amazing talent. He can give every indication of completely ignoring me, but, when asked if he knows what I said, will regurgitate verbatim what I’ve just said to him. It’s maddening. And, contrary to his belief, it doesn’t count as listening. Even if your ears are open and receiving noise stimuli, you aren’t listening if your whole person isn’t attending. Unfortunately, far too many adults haven’t learned this lesson yet themselves.

There is more to listening than allowing sound waves to crash over you. The thing about my son, is that while he is storing my little sound bytes in his short-term memory, he isn’t processing them. It’s like he hears it for the first time when he says it back to me. He also isn’t processing vital information about me that are part of the message. Am I feeling empathetic, frustrated, proud, confused? What do my body language and tone suggest about how important this message is? To gather this data, you have to listen with your whole body – ears, eyes, body, and mind. That means your body needs to be oriented toward the person speaking to you, not half-turned to your computer screen or glancing at your phone.

I’m pretty sure that the next stop in my son’s listening learning curve is where many adults perpetually coast: conversing with you and giving both verbal and nonverbal indications that they are hearing and responding, but really only letting the information in deeply enough to position their message back to you in a way that serves their goals. They are listening for weaknesses, chinks in the armor of your argument. This approach makes for good conflict, but not much else. Listening is not the same thing as taking turns talking on the same topic. This form of pseudo-listening is like playing a game of ping pong – you don’t really get anywhere.

Poor listening at the very least damages information exchange – shallow processing will lead to limited understanding and retention. If you are so focused on the content of your mind and your next contribution, you aren’t going to get and remember what the other person is talking about. And if you aren’t deeply getting what the other person is trying to communicate, nothing is going to change. Maybe that’s what you want anyway. But to be a really good listener, you don’t just have to open your ears, you have to open yourself to the idea that the other person has something valuable to share. You have to be open to changing your opinion or perspective, to acknowledging you don’t know everything. So, a critical part of listening is awareness of your own perceptual filters that might shut out or distort part of the message. It takes humility.

You know a good listener when you experience one. Good listeners are present – not in the sense that they are physically occupying particular space-time coordinates, but that they are there with you. Their attention feels generous, warm, and curious. It feels good to talk with a good listener. When you truly listen to people, they feel valued and respected, which is why it’s a critical relationship skill. And since most of us conduct at least some portion of our work with and through others, listening is a critical job skill.

Everyone thinks they are above average at, well, everything. We all think we are better listeners than we are. So consider trying on for size the idea that you could do better. Try to up your game. Next time you’re in a conversation – with anyone, from your boss to your kid to the cashier at the grocery store – bring some more awareness to how you listen. Being more mindful and present as a listener will make you rich in ways you can’t anticipate. So don’t just open your ears – open your mind.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” — Winston Churchill


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