Learn to Listen

Most people anticipate what you are going to say. Often they will respond to what they think you should have said instead of what you actually say. I suspect that this is the root of many disagreements. We get in to debates where we passionately agree with each other while thinking we are in an argument. Most of us never learned to how to listen.

We spend a good portion of our young lives being educated. First, we learn from our parents. Then our formal education begins. Public schools in the United States of America are mostly centered around four broad subjects: Language, Math, Science and Social Studies. Language classes begin with learning to read and comprehending what we read. We then learn how to write with proper grammar. Eventually, we are taught how to speak to a group. Some colleges and universities do offer effective listening courses. But, as far as I know, public schools don’t normally teach their students how to listen.

What is listening?

We consider hearing and listening synonymous. They are not. Have you ever turned on the television or played music for background noise? This is hearing without listening. Have you ever caught yourself mentally preparing your response while someone else was speaking to you? Hearing, not listening. Honestly, we do this all the time. The world around us is a constant noise making machine. There are cars speeding down the street, airplanes flying overhead, birds chirping, someone down the street mowing the lawn as well as a million other sounds that we tune out. In fact, we are actually better at tuning out the noise than we are at listening to it.

We take it for granted that people are capable of listening. If I am speaking to someone and they are looking at me, I assume that they understand what I am saying. There is a better than average chance that they are not listening. I’m convinced that most people don’t know how. Even those who do, aren’t very good at it. It takes practice. Unlike reading and writing, most of us don’t consider listening a field of study. We don’t even think about it much less strive to become proficient.

Why is listening so difficult?

The primary obstacle is that we are typically more interested in what we have to say than the person speaking. We have a narrative that we are attempting to support. We have an ideal of what the speaker is about. We try to match these things with the words that are being spoken. That is, if we are not already tuning them out trying to formulate our response. If we stop treating conversations like a debate, listening becomes much easier, even when you are in a debate.

Listening can still be difficult, despite removing your personal assumptions. Some people process information faster than others. Some people have listening disorders which are challenging, if not impossible to overcome. Even for those who have normal hearing capabilities, listening can be rough. Some people talk fast, slur their words or have accents that are unfamiliar and hard to follow. There is nothing wrong with asking someone to slow down or repeat themselves. It is ok to admit that you didn’t understand. When you are unwilling to do so, you are more likely to infer what is being said.

Techniques such as Active Listening can really help. Created by Carl Rogers and Richard Farson in 1957, active listening is a process of using verbal and non verbal cues to better comprehend what the speaker is trying to convey. There are many books and articles written on the subject. I won’t try to paraphrase them here. I do feel that there is a more underlying problem that we don’t normally recognize. People do not seem to be able to keep pace with the amount of words/sounds that are being directed at them. No amount of empathy or calculated tactics for paying attention can make up for that. It takes a lot of practice to get good at listening. Unfortunately, we learn at an early age to fake it and faking it has become the default.

How does one learn to listen?

Here are some recommendations for becoming a better listener.

First, focus entirely on the sound that the words make. Try to hear every syllable. It is not easy and doesn’t come naturally. Do this, listen to an audio book or a podcast. Slow it down. Write down each word that you hear. It is harder than it seems. If you want to improve your listening skills, do this every day for a few minutes. Even better, use audio in a different language that you don’t understand. This helps you focus completely on the sounds being made instead of the ideas. Don’t worry about spelling. In fact, I recommend that you listen to a language with a completely different alphabet and use transliteration. Eventually you will become very good at hearing.

Next, try techniques like Active Listening. Specifically, while having a conversation with someone, don’t consider how you will reply while they are speaking. Focus entirely on what they are saying whether you agree with it or not. If they get long winded and you are having trouble remembering everything, stop them. Say something like, “wait, let me make sure I understood that” and then paraphrase what they said. This will do two things. It will keep you from getting overwhelmed with too much information. It will also make the other person feel like you are actually listening to them. A nice side effect is that this will typically cause them to listen more closely to you.

Another trick for becoming a better listener is to try a version of the previous idea with an audio book. Listen to a portion of the audio, pause it, and then try to repeat it back. Turn it into a game, see how long you can listen and still repeat it back word for word. Not being able to remember what the other person said is a huge part of misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Conclusion

Taking the time to improve your listening skills will upgrade your communication skills. It will also help the people you communicate with. Typically, when some feels like they are being heard, they make more of an effort to listen themselves. Another benefit of being a better listener is that you will learn quicker. It’s easier to put the dots together when you have all of the information. When we are listening and need to infer parts of what we heard, we leave room for misunderstanding. By spending the time to improve your ability to take in and comprehend audible information, you will both improve your knowledge and your relationships with others.