Are You Listening? The Essentials of Real Listening

“Some lucky people seem to have a magic touch when it comes to getting people to buy into their plans, goals and desires. But, in reality, reaching people isn’t magic. It’s an art…and a science.  And it’s easier than you think.”   Mark Goulston, author, Just Listen

Yes, we all know that listening is important.

It is considered, by broad consensus, an essential business ingredient. Listening is required for relationships to be balanced and harmonious.  Negotiators point to listening as the key to delivering successful agreements.

Most people we work with say that listening is sorely missing in the workplace – and the majority wants to be better listeners themselves.
When we ask our seminar participants, “When did you last feel like someone you work with was really listening to you” – most say they can’t recall. Some say, never.

Why are we such poor listeners?

What stops us from really tuning into others?

Maybe that’s it?  To listen, we have to take the focus off of ourselves – and place it on to others – and many of us are not very good at that.
Or, we don’t have the time? Or, technology has captured our attention so much that we have lost our people focus?
Or, all of the above?  
Or, could it be that few of us were ever very good listeners to begin with?

How many of us were taught the art – and science of listening when we were young?   We all learn by modeling. If the listening modelers in your early world were competent communicators – chances are that at least some of that rubbed off on you. But typically most of us absorbed the lessons taught by ineffective listeners and in some cases, toxic communication modelers.

Good listening is critically important in our ability to be successful at work – and in our social and intimate relationships that everyone could benefit from a thorough remedial or refresher tutorial Our motivation for becoming better listeners needs to be crystal clear before we focus on our listening skills. Listening is not about technique. Listening well isn’t just about getting clear and concise information.  Because the quality of our motivation is shaped by our intentions, it’s important to understand why and what we value about listening, first and foremost.
Being willing to commit to better listening as a means to get better quality information is smart and practical, it’s by no means the heart of the matter.

The essence of listening is about connecting with others.

That may sound a little too soft for some of you, but we assure you – the science is unquestionably clear about this. Because we are hard wired for empathy (driven by our amazing “mirror neurons” or “Dalai Lama neurons” as neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran calls them) when we demonstrate to others that we are truly interested in their experience – powerful feelings can be evoked.

Ramachandran asserts that these hardwired neural interconnections are so potent because they have the capacity to “dissolve barriers between self and others.”  In other words – to care about each other.  The beauty of mirror neurons allows what we are doing to be mirrored by others, even if they are not consciously aware of it!
And caring about others (which does not have to imply agreeing or even liking another person) is the fundamental difference between simply hearing vs. listening.

In ways that neuroscience does not yet understand, caring (a feeling) turns on the lights that signal to us – this communication is different than others.  Consequently, listening when we care, is perceived and received in a completely different, apparently more meaningful way, than when we intend to simply disseminate information.

The Three Essentials of Real Listening

  • Check out your beliefs – this refers to the beliefs you hold about the importance and value of listening in your experience. Also, explore the beliefs you have about people you are communicating with. Why?  Because the beliefs we have act as perceptual filters in our listening experience.  So the question becomes what are you listening for?  Personal beliefs are key listening filters; so are cultural filters like gender, age, generational experience and nationality. Add emotions to the filters list as well.
  • Caring – We need our empathy or “Dalai Lama” neurons turned on to demonstrate to others that they matter. This can get challenging when we don’t like or agree with someone but have decided that we want to listen to what they have to say. In these circumstances, we need to search for the motivation, however small, to make the difference. Doing so will make our efforts more meaningful and far more effective.
  • Become more aware of your nonverbal and verbal habits – Body language and tone of voice are largely responsible for how other people respond to your communication. Words matter, but if they are not congruent with the perception of your body language, they may send a double message.

Real listening can ease conflict, lessen resistance and help build trust. Real listening can move people to see what they could not see before, feel a range of different feelings within the course of a conversation – and act in ways they never anticipated.
Real listening can be potent, practical and rewarding, but first, we need to understand more about why we don’t. 

Louise and George Altman
Intentional Communication Partners

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