How to Listen

(This post is the third (final) post in a three-part series on Listening.)

If you’ve missed the previous two posts on listening, I suggest you read them first. They cover why listening matters and the wrong ways of listening.

To recap the previous two posts, listening is a crucial skill that we never master, but can improve with practice. We also covered the wrong ways of listening. Finally, here are the effective ways of listening.

The three higher levels of listening include Skeptical, Empathic, and Harmonious listening.

  • Skeptical Listening:
    This involves questioning others in order to understand them or something else as part of inquiry and learning (without probing). We practice this listening when reading newspapers, watching TV commercials, etc.

  • Empathic Listening:
    Listening empathically involves using both logic and emotion; it requires using both the mind and the heart. It’s about stepping out of your inner world and stepping into the world of the other person and looking at the world from their point of view without judging (including agreeing or disagreeing) them. The idea is to make the other person feel completely understood. I also explained empathic listening in the first post.

Attentive listening is a prerequisite to empathic listening. You can’t listen with empathy unless you are first listening attentively. The thing that differentiates the two is that empathic listening involves the heart, while attentive is purely logical and doesn’t involve the heart.

Only when we love someone can we listen to them with empathy. And, only when we listen with empathy can we understand others. When we understand others, we build trust in their hearts, and building that trust is the foundation for building and nurturing healthy relationships. This is the basis for building influence.

Earlier, I wrote about why empathic listening requires a lot of effort:

You cannot listen empathically to everyone all of the time. It doesn’t work like that. When you listen to everyone, you’re listening to no one. That’s why you can only sustain a few deep relationships. Listening takes a lot of effort. When you listen empathically, it drains your brain or mental state and you later need some time by yourself for renewal — to “charge your batteries”. We all do. Regardless of whether you’re more introverted than extroverted or vice versa, we all need some solitude in our lives.

There’s this myth that those who are more introverted than extroverted listen better by being silent. This is also not true. Silence doesn’t equate to listening better — yet, people associate silence with listening. Keep this in mind when training yourself to be a better listener; be aware of your own faults and tendencies when it comes to listening to others.

Empathic listening is one of the best methods for listening, but it is also the most difficult and demanding. Practicing empathic listening is also hard and risky. It takes a fair bit of courage to go into a deep listening experience with someone because you’re opening yourself up to be influenced. As a result, you become vulnerable. Unless you’re willing to do that, you cannot influence others.

  • Harmonious Listening:
    This is the highest form of listening. This is when we’re experiencing complete oneness with thoughts, feelings, and being with the other person. It’s when two people in a conversation connect with each other in a way that goes beyond words.

We want to practice different kinds of listening. No one way of listening is perfect in all situations. For instance, you can’t practice empathic listening with everyone. That would be a sure way to tire yourself out. Similarly, you can only practice harmonious listening with someone you form a deep connection with.

Now that we understand the higher levels of listening, we must learn how to practice listening with empathy.

There are four major stages of learning to listen with empathy:

  • The first stage involves practicing attentive listening by concentrating and confirming by reflecting. Here we’re simply listening to the words first and then saying it back to them as-is. We’re showing them that we’ve listened to them by paying attention to their words without judging them.

  • The second stage requires learning to grasp the meaning of what is being said. Here we’re not simply repeating like we did in the first stage. We’re rephrasing while communicating the meaning of what we heard. In other words, we’re putting their meaning into our own words.

  • In the third stage, we’re beginning to understand the feelings/emotion behind the words. Now we bring our right brain into the picture by reflecting feeling. We’re paying as much attention to what the other person is saying as we are to the emotion behind what’s being said.

  • In the fourth stage, we’re understanding holistically — both the meaning and feelings at the same time. We’re using both our left and right brain to understand both sides of their story.

Here are some best practices for learning to listen with empathy:

  • Listen with an open mind without any prejudice or bias.
  • Listen with the intent to understand, not with the intent to reply — always.
  • Refrain from evaluating or advising while listening.
  • Be a mirror to others; don’t judge them.
  • Don’t worry about agreeing or disagreeing with others; focus on understanding from their viewpoint.
  • Ask relevant questions when you don’t understand.
  • Always remember that understanding is the goal when listening; this happens only when the other person feels understood.
  • Give the other person space so they can express without inhibition.
  • Stay away from personal feelings when listening. It’s not about you, it’s about them.

The language of logic is different from the language of sentiment and emotion. As long as the other person’s response is logical, we can effectively ask questions and give advice. But the moment the response becomes emotional, we need to return to empathic listening.

Listening is the skill that can help us understand others from their perspective, build trust in their hearts for us, and help us develop and maintain mutually beneficial personal and professional relationships.

Listening effectively is one way that we can strive to understand others, step into their world and understand their perspective, and help better the world one person at a time.

The key is to genuinely seek the well-being of the individual, to listen with empathy, and to let the person get to the problem and solution at their own pace and time. Listening skills will only be effective when they come from a place of sincere desire to understand others.

In short, we must listen with an earnest desire to understand others.

The bottom line is if you want to see dramatic results in your communication with others, you need to learn to listen with empathy.

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