(This post is a first in a three-part series on Listening.)
We’re all narcissists by nature, and we think we understand others well. We even think we’re good listeners. We’re not. The thing is, we are so obsessed with ourselves that it’s hard for us to step out of our own world, let alone take a peek at another’s world from their point of view. You’d be surprised how much we don’t understand others. We think we do, but we don’t.
There’re a few reasons why we want to listen well:
As adults, we spend almost half of our waking time listening to others, which is almost equal to reading, writing, and speaking combined. It is imperative that we do it well as often as possible.
When we listen to others, we tend to focus more on words and less on the meaning of what’s been said and the emotion/feeling behind it. The fact of the matter is that we listen through words (10%), but body language (60%) and tone of voice (30%) are far more important. As such, we tend to focus more on words and less on the emotion/feeling.
Listening effectively can help us bridge the gap between our narcissistic nature and seeing the world from other viewpoints. It gives us the power to understand others in a way nothing else can. Additionally, understanding others can help you just as much as the person you’re listening to in many ways (more below).
Listening helps us understand others. Understanding others helps us build trust. Building trust is the foundation of having healthy relationships. We need to develop and maintain healthy relationships because we coexist with others in this world. And listening is that empathic skill that we can use to understand others and their viewpoint.
Listening empathically is the difference between night and day. Often times we forget that listening is the fourth critical communication skill (besides reading, writing, and speaking) that is key in our personal and professional lives, and one when we practice consistently can do wonders for us and our relationships with others.
So, what does effective listening look like?
Listening effectively is about understanding others. Unless we listen, we can’t even begin to understand because it’s the first step. In order to understand others, we need to step outside of our inner world (due to our narcissistic nature) and step into the other person’s world to understand their point of view. This is much harder than it appears.
Listening is never about the content of what the person is saying, and is always about meeting their need for psychological air and their need to be understood.
This is also not to say that we agree or disagree with what they are saying. It’s about being a mirror, not the judge. It’s about looking at the world through their eyes. That comes from a place of logic and emotion. It requires listening attentively as well as empathically. Only when we listen to others in a way they feel listened to do we have any chance of understanding them, and only when we understand them can we help them make the change they desire. We can only influence others when we’re open to change. I’m not suggesting you listen so you can solely influence others, as that would be manipulation.
We listen only to the extent that we’re open to change. Those who are not open to change are not willing to listen.
The only measure of whether you understand others is that they must feel understood, and only they can acknowledge that. If they don’t feel understood, then it doesn’t matter how much you think you understand them. When they don’t feel understood, you’re not being empathetic enough or trying hard enough to understand their view.
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.
Too often, we listen with the intent to reply rather than the intent to understand. While that person is talking to us, we’re already thinking about what we’re going to say right after they are finished talking, even while they are still talking. This makes the other person feel like they are not being listened to or understood. When they don’t feel understood, you’re making a withdrawal from their heart, and your ability to influence them wanes slowly.
Dalai Lama said:
When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.
Listening is the one skill that will always challenge you to be better, and it will always test your patience. I know I fail at it more than any other skill, yet I continue to aspire to be a better listener so I can better understand my friends, family, colleagues, and my clients. You’ll have to practice it every day to be even moderately good at it in the long term, yet it will be the one skill that you’ll never be able to master. You can only aspire to being a better listener, and you have to make peace with that.
You don’t learn about the world or gain alternative perspectives by talking to other people. You can only grow in this sense by listening. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to listen to what others have to say.
Listening is a crucial communication skill to learn in an attention-deprived 21st century. It’s what makes us human. It helps us understand others, has the power to save lives, and even has the power to end wars. Don’t underestimate its power.
When we listen to others, it can help us change the world for the better.