Are You A Good Listener?

Posted on December 13, 2016

We hear a lot about how to speak well in public, but very little about how to learn the equally important art of listening properly to others. Being a good listener is one of the most important and enchanting life skills, anyone can have yet few of us know how to do it. Not because we are evil, but because no one has taught us how and, related point, no one has listened to us. So we come to social life greedy to speak rather than listen, hungry to meet others, but reluctant to hear them, friendship degenerates into a socialised egoism.

Like most things, it is about education: our civilization is full of great books on how to speak, Cicerus’ ‘Orator’ and Aristotles’ ‘Rhetoric’ were two of the greatest in the ancient world, but sadly no one has ever written a book called ‘The Listener’. There is a range of things that the good listener is doing that makes it so nice to spend time in their company.

Firstly, they egg us on. It’s hard to know our own minds, often worrying in the vicinity of something, but do not quite close in on what’s really bothering or exciting us. We hugely benefit from encouragement to elaborate, to go into greater detail, to push just a little further. We need someone who rather than launch forth on their own will simply say those two magic words “Go on”.

You mention a sibling and they want to know a bit more, what was the relationship like in childhood, how has it changed over time. They are curious where our concerns and excitements come from. They ask things like “Why did that particularly bother you?”, “Why was that such a big thing for you?”. They keep our histories in mind, they might refer back to something we said before and we feel they are building up a deeper base of engagement.

Secondly, the good listener urges clarification. It is fatally easy to say vague things, we simply mention that something is lovely or terrible, nice or annoying, but we do not really explore why we feel this way. The friend who listens often has a productive, friendly suspicion of some of our own first statements and it is after the deeper attitudes that they are lurking in the background. They take things we say like “I am fed up with my job” or “My partner and I are having a lot of roughs” and they help us to focus in what is really about the job we do not like or what the roughs are really about.

They are bringing to listening and ambitioning to clarify the underline issues. They do not see conversation as the swapping of anecdotes, they are reconnecting the chat that you are having over pizza with.

With the philosophical ambitions of Socrates, whose dialogues are records of his attempts to help fellow Athenians understand their ideas and values in a better way.

Thirdly, good listeners do not moralise. The good listener is accurately aware of how insane we all are. They know their own minds well enough not to be surprised or frightened about this, they are skilled at making occasional little positive sounds, strategic “MMMMM…”that delicately signals sympathy without intruding on what we are trying to say. They give the impression that they recognize and accept our follies, they reassure us that they are not going to shred our dignity.

A big worrying in a competitive world is that we feel we cannot afford to be honest about how distressed we are, saying one feels like a failure could mean being dropped. But the good listener signals early and clearly do not see us in these terms. Our vulnerability is something they warm to, rather than being appalled by.

Lastly, good listeners separate disagreement from criticism. There is a huge tendency to feel that being disagreed with is an expression of hostility and obviously sometimes that is right. But a good listener makes it clear that they can really like you and, at the same time, think you are wrong. They make plain that their liking for you is not dependent on constant agreement. They are powerfully aware that a really lovely person could end up a bit muddled and in need of some gentle untangling.

When we are in the company of people who listen well, we experience a very powerful pleasure but too often we do not realize what it is this person is doing that so nice. By paying strategic attention to the pleasure we can learn to magnify it and offer it to others, who will notice, hear and repay the favour in turn. Listening deserves discovery as one of the keys to a good society.


Source material from TED-ED


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