So do you think you are a good listener? Maybe we are when a friend begins to tell us about a problem, or when some gives us instructions for something urgent and important that needs to be done… but what about on a day-to day level? It’s easy to get distracted from conversations by the busyness of the world, especially in stressful times like during COVID and lockdown. But being a good listener is part of the all-important habit of CONNECTING, and so therefore is a crucial element of our lives.
When I first saw mention of Kate Murphy’s book on listening, I decided to read it as a kind of penance for all those times I found my mind drifting off during a simple conversation. But it turns out I am not alone. As Murphy explains in You’re Not Listening, the speech-thought differential means that we think much faster than we speak. Whilst listening to a conversation our brains essentially believe they have extra time to process other things. This is a fallacy though and one of many reasons presented in the book for our failure to really listen to and understand each other. This impacts our relationships both at home and in the workplace.
You might think that mobile phones and young people’s constant habit of wearing headphones are at the root of the pandemic of poor listening nowadays and while Murphy does acknowledge this, much of what is really to blame is our pre-conceived ideas about the speaker and indeed about the world. This means, we are worse listeners to people we know and about topics we feel we know a lot about! When we know people, we make great assumptions about what we think they are going to say and how we think they will respond to things – which again gives our brains time to wander off into other topics. The same goes with topics we know about – we also make assumptions about the content of these conversations too, and don’t often enough embrace being curious about what a new person may have to offer about the topic.
And it is this curiosity that is the hallmark of all good listeners. Good listeners are really open to what their conversation partner has to say. They hold their opinions lightly and find it interesting to have them challenged.
Even if you think you are listening well – if you hang on to these biases it will reveal itself in your body language or even perhaps in a long sigh as someone begins speaking. All of these behaviours discourage the person you are with from sharing more.
You also have to be a good listener to ask good questions as well – and there is something perhaps to be taken from this for the students and teachers reading this article. Sometimes an act of good listening is reflected in asking the right questions – questions that invite the speaker to tell more of their story and to reveal the reasons behind it. This is what great interviewers and great marketers do – also great comics – especially those who specialize in Improv.
We are also often selfish conversationalists – who think mainly of how to contribute our own views or even turn the conversation in directions we want rather than let it flow in the moment. And our inner voice registers as louder than external sound – so we give it more time and attention. Murphy encourages us to recognize this and consciously try to do away with these bad habits.
When we are heard, we feel seen and validated. This is a wonderful gift to give the people in our lives. But to be better listeners, we really have to become conscious of our own poor listening habits.
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