Can We Learn To Listen?

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

"When people share problems with me, I approach things differently. My time in Circles has trained me to slow down, ask a few questions, and listen harder. It’s changed my relationships."

- René Lönngren

Ever listened to a friend, family member or colleague’s problems and felt like you had the perfect fix? Your well intentioned advice may have, unwittingly, completely missed the mark.

Moya Sarner, who bravely volunteers at the Listening Place, giving support to people with chronic suicidal feelings, has written about learning to be a better listener; “giving advice is not listening, and often it’s not helpful. It shuts people down. If you feel a responsibility to fix your friend’s problems, relinquish it.”

There are a lot of listening habits we may be surprised to learn we should break out of. Good listening is an important skill in our daily lives, but we might not be as good at it as we’d like to believe. Sarner recalls how her first day of training for the group led her to realise, to her “horror”, that contrary to what she had previously believed, she “wasn’t a very good listener at all.”

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman recently wrote a piece for HBR on the subject of listening. They compared the way we assess our own listening ability to the famous study that shows 80% of drivers believe themselves to be better than average. We largely overestimate ourselves; “the great bulk of adults think they’re above average.”

Can we learn to be better listeners?

The good news is that we can learn and improve our listening skills. First, we have to find the root of the problem. In a post for HBR, Ralph G. Nichols and Leonard A. Stevens point to the belief that our collectively poor listening ability is partly due to a rigid education system, where the focus is always on reading. While we are formally taught to read through learning grammar, spelling and repeated practice, listening isn’t really addressed as a skill in its own right:

“Behind this widespread inability to listen lies, in our opinion, a major oversight in our system of classroom instruction. We have focused attention on reading, considering it the primary medium by which we learn, and we have practically forgotten the art of listening.”

Listening is a skill that is much more easily dismissed by learners, so it should receive more attention than reading in education, Nichols and Stevens argue. A student who is reading out to the class, has to engage with the task at hand in order to carry it out, while listeners can sit back and hope they don’t get any questions directed their way. Lecture halls may be seen as a place where learners are trained to listen, but undergraduates are essentially thrown in and expected to do the best they can with a skill that they have learnt naturally but, more often than not, never honed. 

What’s more, the way we are traditionally told (emphasis on told over taught) to listen at school amounts to advice giving, which acts as a barrier to learning:

“Listening training—if it could be called training—has often consisted merely of a series of admonitions extending from the first grade through college: “Pay attention!” “Now get this!” “Open your ears!” “Listen!””

The focus is changing though. Over twenty universities and colleges in the US now provide courses specifically in listening. Nichols and Stevens point out the problems that affect our listening, as well as strategies we can use to improve, as taught at the University of Minnesota.

A common problem, they emphasise, is that our brains process words much faster than the average speaking rate; this gives us spare thinking time while we are listening, which we are prone to using unwisely.   According to Nichols and Stevens’ research of listening habits, a good listener regularly engages in four mental activities:

  • They try to anticipate what the listener is going to say.

  • They weigh the evidence of what is being said.

  • They periodically summarise what’s being said.

  • They “listen between the lines”.

Aside from getting the us to actively look for a balanced view of what they’re listening to, these activities focus the our spare thinking time on the task at hand. It prevents us from getting distracted by stray thoughts.

Another problem Nichols and Stevens point out are the emotional filters we put up, often unwittingly. They say, “when someone says what we especially want to hear, we open our ears wide, accepting everything—truths, half-truths, or fiction.” The opposite is also true. When hearing something we don’t want to hear, we often switch off; the words go in but they aren’t processed.

A person’s setting can massively improve things. An open discussion where people are encouraged to be vulnerable and show themselves, rather than a professional face, can help more difficult information to be processed more comfortably. Following a protocol that allows for non-judgmental feedback sets a listener up to be more receptive. Communities such as the Entrepreneurs’ Organization follow this process; they call it the Gestalt Protocol. They encourage participants to not give advice, much like Moya Sarner at the Listening Place, and instead focus on telling stories and allowing people to learn through the experience of others. We use a similar practice at Circles. Guides lead the way while the process allows people to let their guards down, as they don’t feel they are being told what to do.   

Research shows that during a meeting, the loudest and most confident person is often favoured, regardless of the value of their input. We give our members equal airtime so that everyone is listened to. One of the functionalities of the Circles meeting room is an equal air timer. It gives each member their time to say what’s on their mind. Each session acts as an exercise in listening as everyone is given their turn.

So listening can be learned and it’s important to do so. It’s so easy to opt out of face to face conversations in favour of burying our heads in our smartphones. So we're all lacking in practice. And yet practice we can. Nichols and Stevens point out an “awakening that is taking place in a number of management circles” to the fact that listening is a skill that people can greatly improve.

Dave Kerpen, founder and CEO of Likeable Local and author of the Art of People, a guide for forging positive relationships, cites an example in his book. His Chief Technology officer at Likeable Local, Hugh, is such a good listener, you sometimes forget he’s there as “he’s always the last one to talk.” Meanwhile others are competing to get a word in edgeways. The others could learn from him, as when he does speak, it’s almost always worth the wait. When it gets to his turn, he’ll take a few moments to formulate his reply, showing that he’s really been listening. "When he finally does speak, he'll be able to say something that synthesizes everything and makes his point in a powerful way," Kerpen says. "There's a competitive advantage to being the last to speak."

We believe listening can be learned. It’s a skill, like learning, and like learning is in so many ways, it’s taken for granted. You can learn to learn, and you can learn to listen.

If you’d like to learn more about how Circles build safe spaces to foster deeper conversations, leave a comment below or contact us directly on Twitter (@CirclesNotRows). #listening #learning #lifeskills

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