Mastering the Art of Listening

A couple weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend when he made a somewhat off-kilter religious remark. Given the nature of it, I assumed he was joking– until I looked up at his face and realized he wasn’t. Here was someone I’d hung out with on countless occasions– getting coffee, hanging out at the beach, going biking– and I had thought we were quite similar in our beliefs and world views. Yet the more we unpacked that conversation, the more I realized how wrong I’d been in that assumption.

Initial shock aside, though, he and I were able to debate the issue– and although we didn’t come to a common conclusion, we were both able to widen our personal perspectives and see another side, which is what communication and true listening are all about.

Haven’t we all experienced this in some form or other? We make assumptions about others all the time, failing to realize that these assumptions are often false since we make them based on our own personal beliefs and experiences. Yet in truth, no matter how similar we think our friends and acquaintances are to us, we all have differences and can all benefit from hearing the other’s perspective– but this requires true listening.

Listening is not the same as hearing, however, and involves much more focus and intention. It’s not just smiling and nodding when we disagree, but making a conscious effort to understand the other person and what is being said (both through verbal and nonverbal cues).

So, what does true listening entail? Here are four practical things to keep in mind:

1 | Eliminate Distractions

Being distracted prevents us from being present to the conversation at hand and makes it easier to miss important ideas and information. Focus on the other person and what is being said. Turn off phone notifications (or even better, put the phone out of sight) and resist the urge to check for alerts during the conversation.

2 | Be Patient

We tend to fill in silent pauses to avoid awkwardness, but even long pauses don’t always mean someone is done speaking. They may just be taking time to formulate how to say what they mean. Wait for them to finish their thought before jumping in.  

3 | Avoid Prejudice

Having an open mind allows us to empathize with the speaker and understand their point of view. We can debate something we disagree on while also being open to new views and opinions when we set aside our biases and seek to hear someone out.

4 | Watch for Nonverbal Communication

Listening involves more than hearing what it said. We need to be attentive to gestures and facial expressions, as well as volume, tone, and pitch to understand the emphasis of what is being said. These add to the message, and sometimes even speak more to it than the words themselves.

At its core, learning to listen to others means learning how to quiet ourselves— releasing our egos, our preconceived judgements, and our self-focus. We cannot begin to be focused, open, and curious about listening to others until we turn the gaze of our hearts out from ourselves. It’s a critical part of communication that we often overlook, but one that is imperative to developing fresh insights that spark true dialogue and understanding with others.

As Epictetus said: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Comment