In this Special Report, I've chosen the topic of "listening" to explore with you.
I know you may have heard a great deal about listening already. Psychologists, therapists, and other communication experts constantly talk about the positive benefits of being a good listener. And you know what...
They're all right!
Being a great listener can win you friends, improve your marriage, boost your business profits or advance your career. It can make people feel so good about being with you that they'll literally follow you anywhere.
As a physician and stress counsellor, I've got to listen to people every day. If I don't this well, I might make a wrong diagnosis, miss some important fact, or make people feel that I'm not really interested in their welfare.
And when I get home, I've got to listen even more. I've got to listen to my wife, which I must admit I don't always do expertly. I've got to listen to my daughter and to anyone else who might call or drop by.
Whew! That's a lot of listening. You'd think that with all the practice we get, and with all the attention this skill has received, we'd all be pretty good at it. But you know what? Most of us aren't. We're not very good listeners much of the time. It's not because we're lazy, or stupid, or uncommitted, or anything like that. It's just that we all have trouble with listening because.....
Listening...is not a simple skill!
Contrary to what you may have been lead to believe, listening is an incredibly complex skill to master. There's so much going on that doesn't meet the eye, that it's silly to even try to cover the subject in just a few short pages.
So, even though our marriages and friendships depend very heavily upon good listening skills, and even though our customers, clients, and co-workers demand this from us constantly, most advice we receive about improving our listening isn't all that helpful. That's because most advice focuses on technical aspects of listening, such as giving feedback, making eye contact, asking open-ended questions, and not interrupting others while others are speaking.
These techniques are all fine and good....but they don't really get to the heart and soul of listening. And they don't usually empower us to become better listeners.
7 Keys To Better Listening
The purpose of this report is to focus on 7 key aspects of listening that deserve closer attention. While I can't promise that understanding these keys will always make you successful, I can tell you that ignoring them or not paying attention to them will definitely lead to trouble.
So here we go...
KEY #1 Listening is not a passive activity!
Listening is anything but a passive, neutral activity. While it may appear that this is all that's going on, many active processes are taking place within the listener--if they're listening well, that is.
You see, listening is not just hearing the words people utter. If that's all there was to it, we could train computers to do the job.
But listening to human beings involves much, much more (which computers will never do). It involves not just accurately hearing what people say, but getting a sense of who they are, how they view life, what they want to accomplish, what concerns they have, what they're afraid of, how they're feeling, what they want from you, and more. It even involves "listening" to what people aren't directly saying, or what they might be too reluctant to say, or what they definitely don't want you to do in response to their communications. Show me a computer that can do all that!
Thus, in order to become a very good listener, we can't just stop with hearing the words people say. We've got to attend to many other details and many other dimensions that don't meet the eye, but that are crucial nonetheless. (This is why it's so difficult to recognize what good listeners do that makes them successful--it's all going on invisibly inside their heads and the rest of their body.)
KEY #2 Listen for unspoken fears/concerns/moods/aspirations
When people speak, they always reveal their deepest thoughts, ambitions, and concerns. Most of the time, neither the speaker, nor the listener, pick up on these subtle, underlying issues...but they are always there.
Good listeners, on the other hand, frequently attend to these background, unspoken emotions and concerns. And when they "hear" them and empathize with them (either verbally or nonverbally) the speaker often remarks "Boy, you really know how I feel" or "Gee, you really understand exactly what's going on with me."
Here are a few examples to illustrate this important point:
EXAMPLE #1: A young father with a new son makes an appointment to see me (as a doctor) and asks me to refer him to a support group. He wants to resolve some lingering personal issues relating to abuse that he experienced through much of his childhood.
As I listen to his request, which on the surface seems straight forward, I also "hear" other things in the background. In addition to his words, I "hear" unspoken concerns..."Am I going to do the same to my child?"..."What can I do to keep from damaging him?"
Did I listen correctly? In this case I did. Once I gently put words to his deepest fears and concerns, his body relaxed and he acknowledged that he was secretly harboring these thoughts. EXAMPLE #2: Another person comes in to see me (as a stress counsellor) because she's feeling increasingly tense, irritable, and anxious on her job. She clearly relates to me numerous problems with her job. But as I listen to her carefully, I also "hear" the following unspoken concerns..."Am I going to lose control and embarrass myself in front of my co-workers?"..."Am I going to look incompetent or not as strong as my male counterparts?"... "Am I going to go home and start taking out my frustrations on my kids and my husband?"
And the amazing thing about human communication is that she never said any of these things! But a good listener can pick up on them, and most of the time they'll be interpreted correctly.
How do you know when you're right about such hunches? Sometimes you just know intuitively. Sometimes, you can tactfully check out your assumptions by probing with a compassionate question or two, or by restating your hunch for the speaker to confirm. Most of the time, however, your intuition will be right on. Which brings me to the next important key to good listening....
KEY #3 Good listening requires great wisdom
You can't be a good listener if you don't understand human beings. And I mean really understand human beings. How do you obtain this wisdom? I really don't know (it's probably part luck, part hard work and dedication, and part finding the right teachers or mentors). But you know what? When somebody's got it, you can tell in an instant.
Many psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals gain this type of wisdom with many years of experience (although you'd be amazed how many never do). I've also found that radio talk show hosts and television interviewers often have an abundance of such wisdom, as do most successful novelists, playwrights, and other creative writers.
Thus, the wiser you become about life in general, the better a listener you invariably will be. No matter how many technical communication skills you master, if you don't have extensive wisdom about people, you won't come across as truly understanding them.
Speaking for myself (as if someone else could be speaking as I write this), I know that the more I've learned about human emotions, for example, the better I listen to and understand people when they're emotionally upset.
By the same token, the more I learn about my own self-worth and inner strengths, the more I can "see" and "hear" these same qualities in others.
That's why if you want to become a good listener, it's absolutely essential that you commit yourself to becoming a life-long student of human beings and human nature. Keep on learning and expanding your horizons. Read lots of books, both fiction and non-fiction. Listen to tapes. Attend various lectures, seminars, and workshops. No matter how much you know, or how smart you are, keep pushing yourself to learn even more. Because the more you know about life in general, the better a listener you will automatically become.
KEY #4 Listen to others with respect and validation
One of the biggest secrets to becoming an excellent listener is to take on the job of always finding something to respect and validate about what others are saying. This is a challenging purpose you can take on. But only 1 out of 100 realizes its importance and makes this a top priority.
Most of the time when we're listening to others, we look for faults or weaknesses in what the other person says. We often end up disagreeing (either vocally or silently) with the other person's opinions, feelings, attitudes, or points of views. But nobody likes to have others disagree with them. We all want people to agree with our points of view, or at least we want our thoughts and feelings to be respected and considered equally valid as anyone else's. Even if our opinions or attitudes are based on erroneous reasoning, we still want people to appreciate that our ideas and feelings have great personal meaning for us.
If you don't make people feel that you respect their points of view, they won't feel "understood" and will consider you a bad listener.
How do you develop this ability to listen with respect? Well, first you've got to realize that most people aren't going to think, feel, and reason just like we do. They're going to do things their own way, and they don't really care about what we think is right.
When I listen to others, I frequently have to force myself to remember this basic truth about life. I have to consciously choose to look for something meaningful and worthwhile in whatever someone is saying, no matter how blatantly wrong or insipid it may initially appear to me. And you know what? If you look hard enough for these hidden kernels of merit or validity in what others are saying, you will almost always find them lurking there somewhere.
It also helps to realize when you own style of thinking and reasoning is fundamentally different from the people you are interacting with. For example, parents often make the mistake of listening and communicating with their kids as if they were "little adults." But kids don't think, feel and reason like adults. Their thought processes and reasoning processes are very, very different. Kid's don't respond to the same types of motivators we do. They don't relate to future goals and payoffs as we do. And they don't always want to be educated or enlightened as we might value these opportunities. If you don't remind yourself of these essential differences-- which are very, very easy to forget--you won't be able to communicate with children successfully. (Next time you meet a first or second grade teacher at a party, take a few moments to talk with them about this subject--they live this stuff everyday!)
Another good example of this point is the frequent problems that arise when men and women communicate with each other as if both are (or should be) exactly the same. The truth about men and women, however, is that when it comes to communication styles and needs--they are very, very different. For example, men are brought up in our culture to listen in certain habitual ways. They listen to problems from the standpoint of identifying a verbalizing effective solutions. Women, on the other hand, also are interested in solutions, but they are much more prone to empathize with the speaker's internal feelings and to spend much more time "talking about" the problem before diving into solutions. This applies to sexual foreplay as well! (Remember, I warned you this newsletter was about getting people to follow you anywhere.)
This crucial difference between the speaking and listening styles of men and women has been the subject of several popular best selling books. The two best I've seen are "You Just Don't Understand" by Deborah Tannen (William Morrow, 1990) and "Men Are From Mars...Women Are From Venus" by John Gray (Harper Collins, 1992). Both books say exactly the same things, but John Gray's book does it a little better and in a much more entertaining fashion.
If you haven't read "Men Are From Mars...Women Are From Venus" yet make sure you do. Believe me, you'll thank me many times over.
KEY #5 Listen without thinking about how you're going to respond
It's very hard to be a good listener--at any level--if you're not fully attending to what others are saying and feeling. Much of the time when people are speaking to us, our heads become filled with our own personal thoughts and agendas...thinking how we're going to respond...thinking negative thoughts about the other person...thinking how we would think or feel in a similar situation.
But to listen well, you must put these thoughts aside and "be with" the other person. You've got to fully attend to their words and inner emotions. You've got to actively work to "put yourself in their shoes" and you listen to them speak. And you've got to keep your mind open to discover the value or merit in whatever the other person says.
None of these things can be easily accomplished when you're listening to your own inner thoughts instead of focusing on the other person. You may not always be able to stop such thoughts from occurring, but you can learn to put them aside for the moment, and focus your attention elsewhere.
Here's an example of how powerful a principle this is. Several years ago, I helped lead a weekend communication seminar for a group of experienced physicians on staff at a well-known midwest hospital. One exercise we designed involved pairing up with a partner, where one person played the role of a patient with a problem, and the other person played the role of a physician/helper. The only catch was the helper wasn't allowed to say or do anything! Their job was to just sit there and listen, while the "patient" first described his/her complaints and then continued to talk as they attempted to work out a solution on their own. Now if you know anything about doctors, you know that just sitting there and listening--without thinking of what we need to do-- is very, very unusual for us.
Well, there was one physician in the audience who wasn't too happy about being in the seminar. His hospital department head was promoting attendance very aggressively, and he only showed up because he felt pressured to do so. During this one simple exercise, however, he experienced a major, major breakthrough. At the end of the exercise, when everyone was sharing their insights and experiences, he raised his hand and announced to the group "What I learned from this exercise was that I ALMOST NEVER LISTEN TO MY PATIENTS! I'm mostly paying attention to the thoughts in my own head, and I never fully appreciated this until today!"
Let me tell you, this guy was so enthused and excited that every time we had a 15-20 minute break in the seminar, he would rush upstairs (the course was held at the hospital) to practice listening to his patients. He would sit on their bed and ask a few questions and then listen intently to whatever they had to say. He was so "juiced" by this new found power, which he possessed all along, that he was consistently 10-15 minutes late for the start of the next session.
Listening without thinking is also a requirement for listening to people respectfully and keeping an open mind to the merit or value they bring to the interaction. You can't really listen to others respectfully when you attention is mostly on yourself.
This also includes not prejudging or pre-evaluating the value of what others are going to say. Many times, due to previous experiences, we begin listening to someone with the preconceived notion that we're not going to hear anything valuable or worthwhile. We close down our listening and merely pretend to be paying respectful attention.
For example, my daughter Tracie often senses when I'm about to launch into one of my fatherly detailed explanations of some particular life event. When she senses I'm going to do this, she immediately shuts off her listening. She has prejudged what's coming and has decided to view it negatively (unlike adults, children let you know when they aren't interested--they haven't yet mastered the social skill of feigning pretenses).
The point here is that we all lose contact and intimacy when we close our listening down. Whether it's because we're focused on our own thoughts and agendas, or whether we prejudged the value of the interaction, or what have you....in order to be a good listener, you must learn to put these common tendencies aside and focus your awareness on the potential value of what others have to say.
KEY #6 Listening for tell-tale signs of impending trouble
Another important secret to good listening is to train yourself to "listen" for clues of impending trouble or disaster. Unfortunately, most people won't come out and directly tell you if they are upset with you or if they have little or no intention to fulfill your expectations. They often are too embarrassed to tell you or they might want to avoid a direct confrontation. But they often will give you little tell-tale clues of their displeasure. Some will even believe that they are communicating with you directly, so when you fail to pick up on these clues, they will use this as further proof that you aren't really interested or that you don't really care.
This principle often comes up in our business and personal relationships. In business, we are always communicating with people who make us various promises. A salesperson highlights certain features of a product. A contractor promises to build something in a specified period of time. A co-worker is assigned a task and acts as if they've truly taken it on.
In personal relationships, our partners may drop subtle hints that we've done something wrong or that they are growing displeased with some aspects of the relationship. They might not come out and say this directly, but they will expect you to interpret their clues and take remedial action.
The more you train yourself to "listen" for these subtle signs of trouble, the better you will appreciate what's going on for other people. Listening for people's level of commitment, integrity, and character is a very useful skill. Listening for sincerity is also frequently handy.
These skills are not difficult to develop. But they do take practice and a considerable degree of effort to master. Sometimes it's simply a matter of not passing over obvious clues or inconsistencies because you don't want to hear them or because you'd prefer them not to be there.
KEY #7 Listen with optimism and positive human regard
Many people fall prey to negative thinking and feelings. When they communicate with others, these negative states come through, and they may even want others to sympathize with them and agree with their negative points of view.
Good listeners, however, often have the ability to listen to people "positively," despite their immediate negative state. "Oh, a tornado hit and destroyed your home and all your possessions-- what a tragedy--but at least you're still alive!" Or "Gee, that's awful, but don't worry--six months from now you won't even remember it happened."
You can listen to people communicate about a tragedy with a great deal of compassion. But you also can listen optimistically and with positive human regard for their inner strengths and human capabilities. Sometimes people are so entrenched in their negativism of the moment that they fail to focus on their positive human traits. As a listener, however, you can remind them of this positivity, provided you do it with tact, timing and sensitivity.
Reaching through all the dominant negativity to acknowledge people's positive core will often make them appreciate your support. Letting people know you know how courageous and capable they are, even in the face of extreme emergencies, is another way in which listening can be viewed as an active, purposeful process. Sometimes people will not be totally happy when you point to their positive potential. But many will appreciate the gesture of love and support and will be glad to have people like you in their lives. They will feel you connect with something deep within them, and they will value you for standing up for them, whether they consciously thank you or not.
Besides, when you make it a habit to stand up for people's positive potentials and qualities, you reinforce your own human capabilities. So the next time you fall prey to overwhelming negatively, you'll be able to listen to yourself with much more optimism and positive human regard.
Well, there you have them---seven keys to better listening that will win you friends, improve your marriage, boost your profits, and make people want to follow you anywhere!
7 Keys to Better Listening
- Listening is NOT a passive activity!
- Listen for unspoken fears, concerns, moods, and aspirations.
- Good listening requires great wisdom.
- Listen to others with respect and validation.
- Listen without thinking about how you're going to respond.
- Listen for tell-tale signs of impending trouble.
- Listen with positive regard for people's strengths & abilities.
Now, just because you know these seven keys doesn't mean you're always going to remember to use them. Lord knows, I forget them all repeatedly (so you don't have to call me to point this out).
But the more I reflect upon these 7 keys, and the more I try to use them on a day-to-day basis, the better a listener I think I become.
Keep them in mind and your own listening and relationship skills will improve over time.